Annual Our Lady of Mount Carmel Giglio Festival celebrates 130 years in Williamsburg
Brooklyn’s Take on Southern Italian Tradition Includes the Boat That Returns Beloved Saint
The row of burly men grimaced, their neck veins bulged and sweat dripped from their foreheads as they strained to raise the 4-ton wood tower that symbolizes a lily. Known as “Giglio,” which means “lily” in Italian, the 85-foot-high tower and the model sailing ship are part of a tradition that dates back to fifth century, when the Bishop of Nola, Paulino, offered himself as a hostage to North African pirates in exchange for a grieving woman’s son. So impressed was the sultan with Paulino’s selfless act, he permitted the prelate to return to Italy with his countrymen. San Paulino, as he later became styled, arrived home in a ship greeted by women bearing lilies.
Over the years, San Paulino’s triumphant return was celebrated in Nola with processions of lilies born first upon wood poles, then platforms with bouquets that grew larger and more elaborate. Brought to South Brooklyn in the 1880s by Nolani immigrants, flowers that originally symbolized purity evolved into the massive Giglio that promenade majestically through the streets of Williamsburg every year to mark the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and honor San Paulino di Nola.
“I had a lot of friends who were lifters,” said Tim Marsh, pausing to catch his breath during a lift of the ship, or “la barca,” which symbolizes San Paulino’s return. Marsh, who lives in Suffolk County, said listening to his friends’ accounts of the festival, the culture and comradeship shared by the “paranza,” or lifters, piqued his curiosity. “I tried, and I fell in love with the culture,” he explained. “My grandfather was originally from Calabria, so this isn’t too far removed from my own heritage. And I hope to pass this on to my son as part of his heritage.”
Williamsburg’s first Giglio procession — or “dance” as it became known because the tower’s movements coordinate to music played by the live band that rides atop — took place in 1903. Many “paranza” crews —“Giglio boys” in the parlance — go back generations, their fathers and grandfathers having also lifted. The feast draws many of those who moved away from the old neighborhood for a week of tradition and celebration with friends and family.
Lifters are expected to keep their dues up to date. Those with enough experience have the opportunity to apprentice as “capos,” or captains, who guide the Giglio’s dance using canes or walking sticks, often pressing their own backs into the structure’s motion to turn it one way or another.
Every other year a single capo is selected to serve as number one, or “Tuti Capo,” a singular honor that requires he supervise all of the other capos and lieutenants. This year’s number one, Gerard Langone, was hard to catch up with as he raced around the shrinking gap between the two Giglios, his red and blue sequined hat flashing in the sunlight.
The most intricate portion of the procession brings the two massive structures into close proximity right in front of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Festival security crews, mainly composed of East Harlem Giglio lifters whose festival begins in August, joined NYPD community affairs officers in clearing the space between them, waving their arms and pressing the members of the crowd flat against the church facade to make way for the stately procession.
“We’re the only festival in the New World with a boat,” Capo Joe Cicileo explained. “When some of our people travel to Noli [a coastal city in Eastern Liguria] the people there always know about our boat. It’s important to them, because it demonstrates respect for how San Paulino returned to the people.”
This year’s boat is new, Cicelio went to say. After modifications to the previous “barca” proved unsuccessful, the feast proceeded using an actual power boat donated by a parishioner, while the new boat was being constructed of wood, fiberglass, plastic and canvas. Cicelio estimated that with musicians, lieutenants and kids tossing confetti over the gunwales, the barca displaced about 4 tons, or 8,000 lbs. With 94 positions for lifters, that meant each man carried about 85 lbs.
“Yeah,” Cicileo grinned. “If you assume everyone’s actually lifting and not goofing off.”
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Religious Services for Our Lady of Mount Carmel Feast Day
The religious festival of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel is celebrated on Sunday, July 16. Christian hermits in the 12th and 13th centuries living at Mount Carmel began the Carmelite order, placing it under the protection of St. Mary. The parish named for Our Lady of Mount Carmel will offer Masses in several languages, Italian, of course, being one of them. A vigil Mass will be offered as well, at 11 p.m. Saturday night, July 15.
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio will preside at the 11 a.m. celebration Mass in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The procession of the statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel throughout the parish neighborhood begins at 1:30 p.m. After the procession, more Masses will be offered in Polish, Spanish, English and Creole by auxiliary bishops and priests of the diocese.
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