More than one hundred years ago, a group of Italian immigrants arrived in what is now known as the “Bunker Hill” section of Dunmore, Lackawanna County. These immigrants came from the small Southern Italian town of Guardia Lombardi, located east of the city of Naples in the Province of Avellino, and with them they brought along their traditions, including a devotion to St. Rocco that is still celebrated today in the form of a yearly procession and festival every August.
St. Rocco, protector against deadly plagues, is considered the patron saint of Guardia Lombardi. Veneration to him dates back to 1656 when a deadly plague and drought swept through the town, killing 1,110 of its 1,475 residents. The first procession in honor of St. Rocco in Guardia took place that year when townspeople decided to pray to him to beg for rain and to end the violent and aggressive developing plague. Read more about the Guardiese devotion to St. Rocco in this previous Irpinia Stories post.
By the time the Guardiese immigrants had arrived in Dunmore’s Bunker Hill section, the procession to St. Rocco had become an integral part of life in their “paese” for over 250 years so it was obvious that they would try to find some way to continue the tradition in their adopted country.
“When the immigrants came from Guardia and settled in Bunker Hill, naturally they wanted to be among their own people,” said lifelong parishioner and Bunker Hill resident Carlo Pisa. “They wanted to do their same traditions here that they did over there because, naturally, it makes you feel like a part of you is back in Italy. It makes you feel more at home even though you’re in a different country. So what they did was they started doing all of the traditions from over there right here, including the procession.”
The first Guardiese immigrants began arriving in Bunker Hill in the late 1800s; by the early 1900s the Guardiese community there was so large that they decided to found their own church. About 40 families joined together and called themselves “The Society for Congregation of St. Rocco’s Church” and began traveling door-to-door among their “paesani” to solicit funds to purchase the current church building from a Presbyterian congregation in the neighborhood since they were unable to secure a bank loan. The first mass at St. Rocco’s Church was held in October of 1905 and the first procession in honor of St. Rocco in Bunker Hill was held in August of 1906.
By the time St. Rocco’s became its own parish in 1922, having been, up to that point, a mission of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Dunmore, the idea of adding a festival to coincide with the procession in order to raise funds was born. Parishioner Nick DeNaples was born in 1935 and has helped with the festival since he was six years old. As a child, DeNaples was told how the first festivals were celebrated.
“What they did then in the 1920s, it wasn’t like where you go out now and see all of the stands like you do now because there was no money to do that,” he said. “There were stoves downstairs in the basement and the basic menu would be things like sausage and peppers, hot dogs, pizza, beer, soda, and wine. The form of selling it was that everything would be cooked inside so much of the time and carried outside in bowls and then they sold it out there.”
“The celebration of the Feast of St. Rocco was always done on a down-to-earth basis,” De Naples continued. “The church didn’t let it go by without having this style of a picnic and then it grew from then all the way to where it is now. It became more prosperous. The Feast of St. Rocco was always celebrated but on a low-scale and it grew but it was always there right from the beginning of the parish.”
The humble way the Feast of St. Rocco was celebrated extended even to how the event was publicized; DeNaples recalled that for many years Bunker Hill residents would know the festival was coming when they heard a certain sound throughout the neighborhood.
“For advertisement purposes for the picnics in those days, there was poverty so they couldn’t afford newspapers or billboards so what they did was get an old vehicle and put a sound system on it,” DeNaples said. “Somebody would be driving and someone would be announcing that the St. Rocco’s picnic was coming up all through the streets of Bunker Hill. They would do this about 3-4 weeks ahead of time every night so people would know. It was their way of life.”
The Feast of St. Rocco traditionally falls on August 16 and the festival and procession at St. Rocco’s Church in Bunker Hill takes place the weekend prior to the saint’s feast day. At its beginning, the procession, which is always held on the Sunday of the 3-day festival, included a statue of St. Rocco followed by a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph as well as St. Michael the Archangel. In later years, the statue of St. Michael the Archangel was taken out of the procession. In 2008, to commemorate the linking of St. Rocco’s Parish with St. Anthony of Padua Parish following parish restructuring efforts throughout the Diocese of Scranton, a statue of St. Anthony was added, making the procession identical to the one that is still held yearly in Guardia Lombardi. In July of 2010, the two parishes merged together and are now known as SS. Anthony and Rocco Parish.
The procession leaves St. Rocco’s Church and travels throughout the streets of Bunker Hill while a priest blesses bystanders with a relic of St. Rocco. A band usually follows the procession. Statues are placed on beams that are then carried by the men of the parish.
The church community’s strong ties with Guardia Lombardi can still be seen today; on the façade of St. Rocco’s Church there is a cornerstone in Italian proclaiming that the church was founded by Guardiese immigrants in 1905.
“All the common names in Guardia are names in Bunker Hill, some of the spellings might have changed but they are all Guardiese names in this neighborhood,” Pisa said. “You walk through the cemetery in Guardia and you think you’re in Bunker Hill. The tie is that strong.”
Perhaps what is even stronger, according to DeNaples, is the generational bond that the festival and procession bring out in the parish family.
“It is always a big time celebration and something to look forward to and people like it,” he said. “Bishop Timlin (Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Scranton) referred to St. Rocco’s as a small parish but a very vibrant parish, very closely knit. He hit the nail on the head. That is why we’ve lasted all the way to where we are. The parish, even today after the merger with St. Anthony’s, is family-oriented and it goes back to the way our parents were, they had us come and help. They set the pattern, they set the pace, and they brought you with them.”
“The thing we have to remember is that it isn’t the place that makes the people, it is the people who make the place,” he continued. “Bunker Hill is just a place like any other place—it is the people who made the place.”
The SS. Anthony and Rocco Parish Italian Festival will take place August 12, 13, and 14 this year on the grounds of St. Rocco’s Church, 118 Kurtz Street, Dunmore, Pa. 18510.
Below is a video of the kickoff of the procession.
This article originally ran in Pennsylvania Magazine in 2011, it has been edited and updated for reposting on this blog.