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Italian neighbors celebrate heritage with Mt. Carmel Feast

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Childhood memories were rekindled this weekend for Italian-Americans who grew up in the Watertown neighborhood known as “the flats.”

Sunday evening from St. Anthony’s Church, 850 Arsenal St., participants in the Procession of Mount Carmel marched on these familiar streets, where older residents remember watching the ceremony as youngsters.

The religious procession, bearing a statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus, is a cherished ritual in the Mount Carmel Feast, which was held for the 97th year at the church, where families also enjoyed carnival rides and Italian cuisine. The evening then was capped off by a blessing of the church’s new rose window and fireworks.

The project to replace the original window in the century-old church had been in the works for more than a year. Leading the ceremony was Bishop Terry R. LaValley of the Diocese of Ogdensburg.

Sitting in a lawn chair and selling raffle tickets Sunday afternoon, 87-year-old Josie Johnston reminisced with friends about what the annual feast was like during the 1930s.

She described how girls ages 6 or 7 who had taken their First Communion wore white dresses and veils during the procession. She also recalled watching the procession as a child with her family in the front yard of their Emmett Street house with other Italian families. The Virgin Mary statue was carried on the shoulders of four men in those days, she said, whereas now it is pulled through the streets on a cart. The statue bearers used to stop in front of houses to allow people to pin on money, a gesture considered to be a blessing.

When Mrs. Johnston was 5, she said, her older sister was ill with cancer. She remembers an emotional scene during that year’s procession.

The statue “stopped by our house, and my father got up and pinned on a five-dollar bill to bless my sister,” she said. “Five dollars was a lot during the 1930s.”

Such stories brought history alive for Italian-Americans this weekend. Mrs. Johnston sponsored Mary Mitchell Bebout for her First Communion at St. Anthony’s when the latter was 7 years old. Mrs. Bebout, now 76, grew up near the church on Boon Street. After living in Rochester for 53 years, she moved back to Watertown last fall.

“It feels like I’ve come back home because I have Italian family and friends here,” she said. “I remember when all of us girls used to wear white dresses and blue veils during the Mount Carmel Feast here. They’re the colors of Mary.”

Food is also a big part of the festival.

The recipe for the pizza comes from the family of Patricia C. Spaziani, who has attended St. Anthony’s since she was young. Mrs. Spaziani, 68, helped knead dough and bake pizzas for the three-day feast. The pizza recipe was the brainchild of her mother, Anna M., a first-generation Italian-American. Anna’s father, Luigi Forentino, helped organize the festival in the early 1900s.

Mrs. Spaziani lives on Boon Street. By tradition, Sunday’s procession traveled down Bellew Avenue, Emmett Street and Boon Street before taking Arsenal Street back to the church.

She said that when she was a young girl volunteering at the festival, her mother “would be downstairs in the basement making spaghetti, while I was up selling pizza. This is like coming home for the old members, because it brings back those memories.”

Asked what makes family’s pizza recipe special, Mrs. Spaziani’s reply was simple.

“People know it’s cooked with love,” she said.

Video of the unveiling of a new rose window at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church: http://wdt.me/UYsK8D

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