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Rites Of Spring : Celebrating Father Spring

March 16, 1995|VINCENT SCHIAVELLI

In the Bushwick section of of Brooklyn, where I grew up, we had holidays of our own. Holidays in addition to Thanksgiving and Christmas and the Fourth of July. Holidays imported by the Sicilian immigrants of my grandparents' generation.

Foremost amongst them, was the Feast Day of St. Joseph, on March 19. In the old neighborhood, we called the two-week celebration surrounding it, "the feast."

To the Sicilian people, St. Joseph's profound commitment to his familial responsibility, and his quiet courage in the face of great adversity, have made him the exemplar of one of the traditional Sicilian ideals of manhood, "omu di panza, " a "man of stomach." A man who can stomach the "misery of life," and has the guts to do the right thing.

Church art in Sicily depicts St. Joseph as a white-haired and bearded man with kind fatherly eyes and strong steady hands. He often carries a staff topped with early spring flowers. To Sicily, St. Joseph has become a Christianized "father spring." By March 19, spring's renewal is very much in evidence throughout Sicily, and celebrated.

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In Brooklyn, however, the arrival of spring was not always so evident. From the beginning of the month, discussions of erratic March weather patterns, raged throughout the neighborhood.

The more devout smiled knowingly at these discussions. They knew them to be a waste of time, for the great saint would, certainly, supply good weather for the celebration of his feast. Whatever the reason, spring always managed to appear just in time for "the feast." On the morning of the feast day, the great statue of St. Joseph was carried through the streets in procession. This statue, made of wood, was larger than life. The saint's features were carved and painted by a master. His eyes held you in their gaze from many angles and for a great distance. His clothing was real cloth, topped with a long green mantle.

Preceding the statue was an army of acolytes holding candles or swinging thuribles. Enshrined in their midst was a priest carrying a long pole topped with a golden cross. Following the statue was a band, playing sicilianae in stately rhythm. Behind was a prowl of old women in black, carrying round loaves of bread before them.

Another old Sicilian tradition for this time is the St. Joseph's table, 'a tavula' i San Giuseppi. In exchange for answering a prayer, or out of devotion to the saint, vows are made to hold a yearly feast for a certain number of pitiable orphans in the name of St. Joseph. The devotees are assisted in keeping their vow by their families and neighbors. In Brooklyn, the most stunning of these tables was sponsored by Maria Roccaforte.

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Maria was born in 1891 in Santa Margherita de Belice, a mountain town in the Province of Agrigento, in southwestern Sicily. She immigrated to America as a girl, and by 1922, was married and a mother of four. She worked as a seamstress in a Brooklyn dress factory, doing piece work. Maria's sharp, dark eyes, and determined "no nonsense" will, contrasted her small, delicately boned stature. She was devout and pious, but by no means ethereal or aesthete.

In her 31st year, Maria had had a dream. As she told it, St. Joseph appeared to her. Startled, she asked, "What do you want?"

St. Joseph said, "I want you, Maria, to feed six orphans at a feast in my honor."

"But St. Joseph," she said, "I'm a poor woman."

He said, "Don't worry Maria, it will cost you only $1."

"But how?" she demanded, thinking that, perhaps, it wasn't St. Joseph at all, but some trick of the devil.

The good saint wrote in the air, listing all of the items she would need and their cost. Being quick at addition, from tallying the chits on her piece work, she informed the saint that the list added up to only 98 cents. Nearly at the end of his patience, he said to her, "Buy more napkins."

With that, she woke up, certain she had been visited by a heavenly presence.

Maria Roccaforte dutifully followed the wishes of St. Joseph. The feast for the orphans that year did, indeed, cost her only $1. Year after year, her St. Joseph's table grew. Everyone who visited left a small donation. And so, for the next 65 years, until her death at 96, Maria Roccaforte's St. Joseph's table never cost her more than a dollar, including the napkins.

For the St. Joseph's table, Mrs. Roccaforte's apartment was transformed into part shrine, part cornucopia. The furniture was removed, replaced by tiered tables swathed in white cloths. The tiers reached nearly to the ceiling. On some of these were placed hundreds of large votive candles. Each candle had a white label attached to its glass, so that persons could write down their reasons for lighting them. Other tiers were covered in flowers and potted palms.

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