A streetside Mass provided one of the most moving moments of St. Anthony’s Feast in Boston for me this past weekend.
The outdoor Mass in honor of St. Anthony is held the Saturday evening of St. Anthony’s Feast, where Via Di Santa Lucia and Via Di Sant’Antonio meet. This year’s Mass was presided over by Fr. Michael Della Penna, the pastor of the North End’s St. Leonard of Port Maurice Parish, which was the first Catholic church in New England to be founded by Italian immigrants. My mother, Sean, and I were within the first two rows, so our vantage point was excellent.
Before Mass, we got into conversation with two of the other ladies sitting next to my mother. One had been going to the Feast for years and said she would never miss it because of how good St. Anthony was to her family and because of how important it is to keep tradition alive. The other woman told us that she had come in from Connecticut with her husband who was working one of the stands, and as an Italian American, she enjoyed anything that connected her with her heritage. We all became fast friends and made promises to look for each other during next year’s Feast as one of them told us, “You start to see the same people year after year, and it becomes like an extended family.” When we said goodbye to them following the Mass, we were all choked up, as the friendship created transcended the moment—we knew each other through our shared heritage and shared experiences that connected us on a deeper, soulful level.
Fr. Della Penna began Mass with one of the best definitions of sin that I have heard, despite attending Catholic school my entire life: “Sin is the absence of love.” His homily described his own childhood growing up in the North End, and how he, too, had attended the Feast for as long as he could remember. He also described the immigrant generation of the North End, saying that when they invited you into their homes for something to eat, it was their way to say “I love you” to their neighbors. St. Anthony’s Feast, then, was a way for the North End’s Italian community to say “I love you” to its neighbors as well, and the love could be felt at every stand and through every person there. At the end of Mass, he blessed the congregation with the relics of both St. Anthony and St. Lucy.
What struck me the most during the Mass, besides Fr. Della Penna’s amazing homily, was that we were all in the midst of a busy, bustling Italian Feast in the middle of one of the country’s largest cities, but the crowd, which was many rows deep, was silent and focused on the Mass. Italian music from the stands could be faintly heard in the background, but the music on everyone’s mind was that of the Eucharist. The entire Feast was simply the background for the Lord’s table, and God’s presence was truly felt.
Following the Mass, blessed bread is distributed following the closing hymn. I was finally able to see my friend Christian Guarino, as he handed me my piece. Each year for St. Anthony’s feast day on June 13, many Italians eat blessed bread in honor of the saint. I was fortunate enough to try some one year while on vacation in Irpinia, while at a beauty salon in Grottaminarda, a woman from their fire department stopped in with fresh-baked bread and offered us all the opportunity to pull a piece off in honor of “Sand’Antuon.”
Why bread for St. Anthony? One legend states that around 1263, a child drowned near the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua while it was under construction. Distraught, the mother prayed to St. Anthony, asking him to bring her child back to life and, in return, she promised to give the poor an amount of corn equal to the child’s weight. When the child revived, the mother kept her word. Another legend states that in 1888, a woman named Louise Bouffier managed a bakery in Toulon, France. One morning, her key would not work to open the bakery’s door, and help provided by a locksmith was to no avail. While the locksmith was gone fetching tools to break the door down, Louise prayed to St. Anthony, saying she would give her bread to the poor if the door could be opened without force. When the locksmith returned, the door opened with no problem, and Louise kept her word. With this, the townspeople of Toulon began to bake bread for the poor in thanksgiving for prayers answered by St. Anthony, and the tradition was born.
After receiving our bread, the crowd dispersed through the Feast. Sean and I brought Mom to see St. Lucy, and I was able to go over to St. Anthony’s Chapel to pin money on his sash. I was amazed when I saw the ex voto offerings of gold jewelry, including what appeared to be wedding rings and charms, pinned to both saints’ mantles. I had heard of these offerings before but had never seen them at Italian feasts local to me. At this point, Boston’s very own Roma Feast band began to play Italian music and people began to dance in the streets.
We enjoyed more time at the Feast, meeting new friends, sampling foods, and recognizing the holy atmosphere all around us, as it felt like both St. Anthony and St. Lucy were present, thanking us for our faith in them, while we thanked them for their love for us. The North End that night was truly a holy place.
As we walked out of the Feast to get back to our car, we passed the Project Paulie stand once again. One of the ladies who we met earlier yelled to us, “So did you have fun?” We did, we absolutely did.