From July 10 to 21 the church held its annual Giglio Feast, a display of Italian culture and religious celebration. Giglio Sunday on July 14 was the highlight of the entire feast.
“It is truly the heart of this parish,” said Monsignor Jamie Gigantiello. “As the neighborhood is changing and people are moving away, it is an opportunity for people to come back home and celebrate. It’s what keeps our parish going.”
In celebration of the feast day of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (OLMC) and the church’s co-patron San Paolino, over 200 people lifted two large structures, a boat and a giglio, on Havemeyer Street with thousands of spectators watching.
While 2019’s festival marks the 116th consecutive year it has taken place in Brooklyn, the tradition goes back far earlier than 1903.
As the story goes, the town of Nola, near Naples, Italy, was raided by Middle Eastern/North African countries in the fifth century, and Bishop San Paolino offered to be taken prisoner instead of a widow’s son.
Paolino was a prisoner until his story was heard by a sultan, who freed him and the townsmen of Nola. Once he returned, people from Nola and nearby towns greeted him with lilies, or “giglios” in Italian.
The Giglio Feast is a celebration of that moment.
“As the years passed, they continued to reenact this and remember his great sacrifice,” said John Perrone, a feast lieutenant.
He explained how southern Italians would adorn a stack of hay and march it through the streets in honor of San Paolino. Over time, it evolved from hay to a large obelisk.
The giglio used in Williamsburg stands 72-feet tall and weighs four tons. During Giglio Sunday, there were between 20 and 30 lifts by 130 men. For the giglio to travel roughly two blocks, it takes between three and four hours.
“It literally does become a dance due to the different motions that we make with the giglio,” Perrone said. “That might be bouncing it to music or swaying it to music, as well as turning it or just dancing it in place.”
Accompanying the giglio is a boat, the “symbol of the feast,” according to Perrone. The boat “sails” atop the crowds at 25 feet in height with a weight between two and three tons. Some 120 men are responsible for carrying the boat.
Atop the boat is the “Turk,” who represents the sultan who permitted San Paolino to return home with fellow Nola captives. This year’s Turk was Joe Mascia, who fondly recalls the festival from his youth.
“Just going there, hearing the music, watching the giglio being danced, it was just an experience I knew I wanted to be involved with as I got older,” he said. “It feels awesome.”
Giglio Sunday’s highlight is the double lift, which place in front of the church,
“You know you’ve made it to this high point of the day, and everybody gets really into it,” Perrone said. “You’ll really see the reaction of how the giglio and the boat move.”
Perrone recalled being a lifter of the boat and the sense of identity tied to it.
“Through the years, you’d more than once hear a guy say, ‘oh no, I’m a boat guy. We do it this way on the boat,’” he said. “So there’s a little bit of that pride. It’s almost like joining a team.”
People who have attended the feast for years decide what younger participants to recommended to joint the ranks of the lifters.
“I remember the first time I lifted I was really nervous,” Perrone said. “But it felt like everything was right. I was doing exactly what my family did before me.”
Perrone is one of eight lieutenants, each overseeing the lift of a corner of the boat or the giglio. They deliver the commands from the Capo to their team of 40 lifters.
The Capo decides when to lift and how long. This year’s Capo is John Christopher.
“These guys have waited literally a lifetime for this,” Perrone said.
While the sense of pride and unity during the festival is palpable, there is concern of how to ensure it lasts. The neighborhood in Williamsburg is changing, and families who have lifted in the feast for generations are leaving.
So much so that in March, the church went public to invite people who have never lifted before to take up the giglio.
“How can we be sure that in 50 years from now we have a giglio?” Perrone asks.
The church received an “outpouring of emails” from people who have attended the feast in the past and thought they needed to know somebody in the neighborhood to be able to lift.
But the tradition is also being passed down to a younger generation. For the children, there is a smaller version of the giglio, standing about 20 feet and 1,000 pounds.
This year, Perrone’s 11-year-old son served as Capo of the children’s giglio.
“Being able to share the tradition with the next generation is certainly the most important thing that we could do,” he said.
In New York, there are fewer and fewer Italian feasts left, with the San Gennaro and 18th Avenue feasts still holding on.
“It means a lot to the Italian community to have something last so long and be so strong after all these years representing our heritage,” Mascia said.