The Oldest Italian Feast in New York City’s Manhattan: Saint Rocco Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow

By: Raymond Guarini

Introduction

As the feast season is upon us, one must look at one of the oldest living feasts in New York City and the oldest in Manhattan, the upcoming feast of Saint Rocco. A preservationist’s dream, the feast of Saint Rocco maintains uninterrupted for 129 years due to the vigilance and devotion shown by the Saint Rocco Society of Potenza, which was established in 1899. Each year, Saint Rocco’s Feast Day is celebrated on August 16th. This year, the feast will be celebrated on August 19th.

To understand how indominable the love and devotion is for this great saint here in New York, the journey that the feast and society have taken must be acknowledged. The story of Saint Rocco’s continuance as a celebration in New York begins in an old Italian Enclave in Manhattan’s lower east side.

Fourth Ward
A neighborhood once known as the Five Points, or the old Fourth Ward, the lower east side of Manhattan was once home to Irish and German immigrants until the mid-to-late 1800’s, when Italians started to immigrate to the United States en masse. Upon their arrival, Italian immigrants were not welcomed to worship in Irish and German churches. The arrival of more and more Italian immigrants was referred to by many members of New York’s archdiocese as “the Italian problem.” Relegated to church basements or worse, Italians were forced to petition community and church leaders for an opportunity to create their own places of worship. Saint Joachim was their answer. Created as the first Italian parish in New York City in 1888, Saint Joachim was located at the epicenter of the lower east side Italian immigrant community on Roosevelt Street. There were many other Italian enclaves forming throughout New York city in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s but Saint Joachim was certainly the first church in which these new migrants could practice

Catholicism with their own language and ancient customs. It is at Saint Joachim where the first Saint Rocco Statue was held and venerated by the Southern Italian immigrants of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

The Statue

The Saint statue is of paramount importance to devotees of any Saint because it allows the devout to venerate their Saint’s memory while having a tangible connection to Heaven. The original statue that was processed each year in the Saint Rocco procession was built in 1889 and imported here from Italy. With its base, it weighs a total of 100 lbs and is crafted out of paper mache.

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Society History

The Saint Rocco Society was created in 1889 in Manhattan’s Lower East Side by immigrants from Potenza in the Basilicata region of Italy. Italian societies in the late 19th century were created not just out of love and devotion for their saints but to also supplement things for immigrants such as health insurance and death benefits. At that time, there was no organization like Catholic Charities and there were no formidable ways for newly arriving immigrants to acquire insurance or death benefits in the absence of public assistance programs like those which exist today. The societies filled this gap for Italians in addition to providing a place for them to congregate and socialize with their own. They were places where people who were often persecuted against by earlier arriving Europeans could gather and reinforce one another in their new home.

Changing Times
As demographics in the United States continued to change and urban renewal sprawled across major metropolises, many neighborhoods were torn down to make way for newer structures that could capitalize on technology to build vertically taller, and more space efficient structures. This process was mirrored in every major city and particularly here in New York. As a result, the lower east side’s Fourth Ward was essentially torn down. The Italians moved out in droves to other neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs and those remaining around Saint Joachim moved into the Knickerbocker Village, a complex of apartment buildings that sits on the old site of the old fourth ward Italian district. Saint Joseph’s church was built to accommodate the early 20th century’s influx of Italian immigrants into the lower east side and to alleviate Saint Joachim from being overtaxed by its 18,000 parishioners. Both churches, Saint Joseph and Saint Joachim, served that community until 1967, when Saint Joachim was torn down. The Saint Rocco statue was then translated to Saint Joseph and the feast was held from Saint Joseph thereafter until Saint Joseph’s was closed in 2015. At that time, due to the persistent and unconditional devotion by the Saint Rocco Society and chiefly, its president Stephen LaRocca, the statue was again translated to Our Most Precious Blood on Baxter Street in what remains of Manhattan’s other, downtown Little Italy enclave.

The Society Today

Although much of what we show on Italian Enclaves social Media pages (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) reflects on former establishments and institutions, there is a major emphasis placed upon supporting the businesses and traditions that remain. For us, the Saint Rocco feast on August 19th is the apex of current traditions in that not only has it survived uninterrupted since 1889 but also because it has underwent and continues to undergo a profound revival in which new devotees propel the devotion and veneration of Saint Rocco forward.

 

The momentum that the Saint Rocco Society of Potenza has gained is due to the undying support of its members and the people who turn out to the procession each year. Most importantly, as always, feasts serve as an opportunity to raise funds for the society to continue its traditions with the proper authenticity. Therefore, we strongly urge you to support this great feast and oldest Italian tradition in New York by purchasing raffle tickets for the drawing on the evening of August 19th. One’s presence is not necessary to participate in the raffle and if a winner is not present, you will still receive your prize notification via e-mail. Please contribute to this incredible event by participating in the raffle to support the Saint Rocco Society of Potenza in their mission to enlighten the world as to the miracles of Saint Rocco. Purchase raffle tickets here: https://go.rallyup.com/129thstrocco

About Saint Rocco
From the Saint Rocco Society of Potenza’s website (link in bibliography) :
St. Rocco was born of noble parentage about 1340 A.D. in Montpellier, France. At birth it was noted that he had a red cross-shaped birthmark on the left side of his chest. As a young child, St. Rocco showed great devotion to God and the Blessed mother. At an early age, his parents died leaving him an orphan under the care of his uncle, the Duke of Montpellier. Soon after, St. Rocco distributed his wealth among the poor and took a vow of poverty.

St. Rocco dressed in the clothes of a pilgrim and departed for Rome. Along the way, he stopped at Aquapendente, which was stricken by the plague, and devoted himself to the plague victims, curing them with prayer and the sign of the cross. He next visited Cesena and other neighboring cities, and then finally, Rome. Legend has it that everywhere he visited, the terrible scourge disappeared before his miraculous power. He visited Mantua, Modena, Parma, and other cities, all with the same results.
During his travels, he too contracted the plague which was evident by an open sore on his leg. Rocco was banished from the city and took refuge in a cave. There he slept on leaves and drank water from a small stream. Miraculously a dog that refused to eat, faithfully brought him bread as a means of sustenance. The dog used to leave a nearby castle and the lord of this castle having a curious nature followed this dog into the woods and discovered Rocco. The nobleman had pity on Rocco and brought him to his castle where Rocco was cured.
St. Rocco traveled through northern Italy for two or three more years before returning to his birthplace in France. So weak and sick from suffering, the townspeople did not recognize him and he was thrown into jail as a spy without any proof. He was kept in prison for five years. On August 16, 1378, a guard entered his cell and found St. Rocco near death. The dungeon was illuminated with a blue light radiating from his body. Upon hearing this, the Governor demanded to know St. Rocco’s identity. St. Rocco faintly replied, I am your nephew Rocco. Only one thing could prove that, so he had him disrobed and the red cross-like mark was visible on the left side of his chest. The Governor and the townspeople present in the cell then believed. A voice from paradise was heard announcing that St. Rocco’s soul had merited immortal glory in Heaven. Even after his death, St. Rocco performed many miracles.
Saint Rocco is venerated in the Roman Catholic Church as the protector against the plague and all contagious diseases. The statue of Saint Rocco is considered unique among theologians because of his pose. It is most unusual because it depicts him with his left hand pointing to an open sore on his left leg. Few images of saints expose any afflictions or handicaps. His body is enclosed in a glass tomb in the church of St. Rocco in Venice, Italy. St. Rocco is remembered on August 16th of each year.
St. Rocco is greatly venerated in Southern Italy and Sicily. In fact, no other country in the world honors St. Rocco as extensively as Italy, most particularly in the South. Numerous cholera epidemics ravaged Southern Italy from shortly after St. Rocco’s death and the Southern Italian people turned to St. Rocco for his protection against this plague, other sickness and for his help in all circumstances of life.
At the turn of the Century, millions of Southern Italian immigrants brought their devotion to the Blessed Mother and the Saints, including St. Rocco to the United States.
Prayer to Saint Rocco
O Great St. Rocco, deliver us, we beseech you, from contagious diseases, and the contagion of sin. Obtain, for us, a purity of heart which will assist us to make good use of health, and to bear sufferings with patience. Teach us to follow your example in the practice of penance and charity, so that we may, one day enjoy the happiness of being with Christ, Our Savior, in Heaven. Amen.

Bibliography:

As always, we thank John Napoli of Il Regno for introducing us to the Saint Rocco Society of Potenza and for his archive of photographs that he has graciously shared relative to this feast and many others. Blog: http://ilregno2s.blogspot.com/

We would like to thank Stephen LaRocca for his endless love and knowledge about the feast and the Saint Rocco Society of Potenza as well as his hard work in coordinating the oldest Italian tradition in New York https://www.stroccosociety.com/

Churches, Communities, and Children: Italian Immigrants in the Archdiocese of New York, 1995 Mary Elizabeth Brown

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