Sunday, May 19, 2013

San Rocco

In the summer of 1942 residents of New York City's Mott Street held a parade to honor their newly-inducted boys in uniform. For the date of this event they chose the feast day of a favorite saint, and the celebration of soldiers and saint blended nicely together.

The saint was Rocco, venerated for miraculous cures. His feast day, August 16, falls directly after one of the most important feasts of the liturgical year: the Feast of the Assumption, a celebration of the mother of Jesus. On those two days the faithful make petitions to the one for relief of distress and the other for return to good health.

His story is more legend than history. The son of an aristocrat, San Rocco vowed poverty, distributed his wealth among people who were destitute, and made a pilgrimage from his home in Montpelier, France, to holy places in Italy. On the way he succored many plague victims and became victim of that disease himself. He was expelled by officials of the town where he was ministering when stricken and dragged himself to a nearby wood where he made a rude shelter of boughs and leaves. In that place he was supplied with water by a spring which miraculously arose and with bread by a dog which also licked his plague wounds, healing them. When he had regained his health he turned toward home. On entering his home town dressed as a simple pilgrim he was thrown in jail as a vagrant and suspected spy. His family connection would easily have secured his release had he made it known, but he preferred anonymity and died on August 16, 1378, while still a prisoner.

At the last quarter of the nineteenth century when large numbers of Italian immigrants came to Mulberry and Mott Streets and surrounding blocks they brought with them the practice of celebrating San Rocco's feast day. The Irish, whom the Italians displaced, did not celebrate saints' days with street festivals and the leaders of New York's Roman Catholic churches tried to discourage these spontaneous demonstrations. In 1888 Michael Corrigan, the Archbishop of New York, banned the Italian faithful from holding any public religious procession or festa. Regardless, the new immigrants set up temporary private shrines in side streets and alleyways. Eventually the Holy See responded to requests for Italian clergy to augment or replace the largely Irish ones of the neighborhood. The New York hierarchy continued to condemn street festivals, but in 1889 the rector of the city's first "Italian" church, St. Joachim's, made an arrangement by which an independent organization could put on a festa for San Rocco and thereafter the celebration became a regular summer event.

At about this time Jacob Riis took these photos of a back-alley shrine to San Rocco.

The alley itself was Bandits' Roost which Riis also captured in this famous image.

Writing a decade later Riis said the shrine shown in his photographs was one of many erected on August 16th each year within the "darkest and shabbiest" of the back yards in the Italian neighborhoods. He said one of his few pleasing memories of an area he called "foul core of New York's slums," was seeing Bandits' Roost lighted up in honor of San Rocco:
An altar had been erected against the stable shed at the rear end of it and made gaudy with soiled ribbons, colored paper, and tallow dips stuck in broken bottle-necks. Across the passageway had been strung a row of beer-glasses, with two disabled schooners for a center-piece, as the best the Roost could afford. In sober truth, it was the most appropriate. It made a very a brave show, and, oddest of it all not a displeasing one. At all events, I thought so. Perhaps it was the discovery of something in the ambitions of the Bend that was not hopelessly of the gutter which did it.[1]
Riis does not mention a practice which a journalist reported a few years later: "Every one of the faithful who has an ache or a pain will buy from the liberal stores kept in the church a wax leg, or head, or arm, or hand, according to where his or her ailment is, and place it as an offering at San Rocco's shrine. Those who are sound of body and limb will offer decorated candles with their prayers and light them themselves at the shrine."[2] The reporter was wrong about the source of the effigies. They were called voti di cera (vows of wax) and were sold by street vendors. In 1906 a reporter told readers of these "hands, feet, legs, and heads, the latter with the flush of youth on their rounded cheeks, the other members painted with gaudy ribbons" that were sold by a street vendor at a make-shift stand.[3]

Marjory Collins' photos of the Mott Street parade on August 16, 1942, include this one of a shoemaker and his wife in front of his shop and, visible next door, are jumbled body parts in a dismantled sidewalk booth.

{I showed this photo in my previous blog post. It is "shoemaker and his wife in the Italian section on Mott Street" by Marjory Collins, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.}

Detail of this photo.

The details which I show below come from photos of New York's San Rocco festa taken by Percy Loomis Sperr in 1933 and 1937. At left is a sidewalk booth open for business on Roosevelt St. and at right women carrying wax offerings. The doll signifies a wish for fertility and the head a wish to be free of headache or other head malady.

{From photos in collections of the New York Public Library.}

Riis does mention, as do most other writers, the street illuminations of the San Rocco feast. These writers mention jelly jars, clear, green, and red, strung across the streets, each having a wick and a little oil. Writing of the festival in 1906 a reporter tells of "arches of red and green jelly glasses, suspended by wires and clotheslines from across the narrow canyons of streets, each glass with a wick floating in olive oil."[4] Writers also tell of immense illuminated shrines which, in time, joined the humble back yard ones that Riis describes. In 1907 one of the most extravagant was "a dazzling structure of white and blue and gold, rose to the height of the five-story tenement house back of it and had the form and elaborate ornamentation, in stucco, of a cathedral front."[5]

In the early 1970s the producers of Godfather II re-created this scene as it might have looked in the summer of 1919. Here are screen grabs showing the procession of the statue of San Rocco and the shrine to which it's being carried.

This screen grab shows the statue covered with the one- and five-dollar bills of people seeking the saint's intercession on their behalf, expressing gratitude for his aid, or making a general donation.

This article from the New York Times of August 17, 1902 is the earliest news account I could find. It mentions the exploding fireworks which were typical of the festival and which figure in Godfather II when Vito Corleone murders Don Fanucci.

The article also mentions the Society of San Rocco. Originally called the "Potenza Society" after the southern Italian province from which many of its members had come, this was the organization which had made a deal with the rector of St. Joachim's by which it was able to sponsor the first San Rocco festa in 1889. Founded with the contributions and service of local residents, the society survived a serious challenge from a competing organization in 1906 and continues to sponsor the feast to this day. (The challenge came from Church leaders who were hostile to the exuberant celebrations and, it was said, eager to receive the money of those seeking help from San Rocco.)

The Times article of 1902 also reveals the difficulty reporters had in pinning down details about San Rocco (or perhaps their aversion to some elementary fact checking). The reporter understood the saint to be "St. Rocco di Ruoti Dimos" which is not a title given the saint anywhere else. He says the saint is Neapolitan but there is no particular association of San Rocco with Naples. He names the provinces of Conserta and Baselicata by which he probably means Caserta and Basilicata. Potenza is not far from Conserta and is itself within the region of Basilicata. His account says wax figures were presented in gratitude for cures already accomplished while other accounts say they were presented in hope of being cured. In 1903 the Times carried another report on the festival and this time the reporter said he believed the effigies were offered in hope of cure but tells a distorted version of another part of the San Rocco story. He said he was told that saint is depicted with a dog because he once cured a mad one. This comes from the 1903 report:
So in the procession many people, presumably those afflicted or with afflicted friends, carry wax arms or legs, hands, feet or heads, or portions of the anatomy not usually exposed to view. Apparently no hint of the humor of the situation crosses their minds. They carry their waxen models gravely through the streets, and when they reach the church send them up to be piled around the altar.

There is a little place in Baxter Street which makes all these wax images for San Rocco's day. The figure of the saint, borne aloft at the head of the procession, has a dog at its feet. It seems the dog went mad and bit him once, and he cured the bite with some hair from the same dog, so the people in the procession will tell you.[6]
The earliest printed description of New York's San Rocco festival appeared in 1893 in an Italian-language novel by Bernardino Ciambelli. He inserted this scene, presumably to add some local color to his lurid plot of love and revenge:
San Rocco was being celebrated, and the Italians of Mulberry wanted to do things properly. Towards 11 A.M., the call of the trumpets was heard and in the distance flags and banners appeared. The crowd thronged the sidewalks to enjoy the parade in honor of San Rocco. A squad of policemen headed the procession, followed by the Conterno Band, and right after by a banner on which San Rocco was painted in oil, with his wound and his dog. Two flags, one Italian, and other American, flapped at the banner's sides, thus placing the saint under a double protection. Then came the members of the Società San Rocco, stern and proud in their blue dresses with golden buttons and stripes, as if the whole world belonged to them. In the buttonhole of their parade dresses, they had flowers, ribbons, and cockades. After another musical band, military society paraded, in the uniform of the military engineer corps, with the three colours flapping in the wind; and after it the congregations of the Carmine, of the Madonna Addolorata, and of other saints like San Cono, Sant'Antonio, etc. It was a gorgeous parade, something that really made a hit in a country such as this where parades of every race and form are the order of the day. The bands played, the crowds watched in awe and cheered, the windows, the street, the sidewalks were thronged with people.[7]
Many saints laid claim to the affections of New York's Italian immigrants. Riis ascribed the popularity of San Rocco partly to their sympathy with his death in a dungeon which resembled the dank subterranean dwellings of the truly destitute poor. Whether or not that is so, it's certain that living as they did in the unhealthy environment of the tenement district (which Riis graphically described) and lacking access to medical care, many Italians drew hope from San Rocco's reputation as miraculous healer. I suspect San Rocco also retained his hold on the affections of Italians as a result of affinities with St. Francis. Both saints led lives of poverty, devoted to helping impoverished victims of misfortune and both are remembered for interactions with animals. (In time, Rocco would become the patron saint of dogs.) It's also likely San Rocco's feast drew great crowds of enthusiasts because that day fell directly after the Feast of the Assumption with its celebrations of all things associated with the Blessed Mother. And, finally, the celebration probably would not have been so exuberant if it had taken place at some other time of year. I think the festive crowds of the San Rocco fest, its many processions, the lights and decorations, the bands and fireworks all owe something to the warm-weather date of the saint's death. In other words it's likely the Feast of San Rocco got some its popularity because it fell at a time when the airless summer heat of stifling tenements gave powerful encouragement for outdoor activity.

The festa of the Assumption and of San Rocco were more inclusive than most. During those two days all members of the community — poor and modestly well off, lay and religious, male and female, old and young — mingled more or less freely with a relatively high degree of spontaneous high spirits. Such happy mingling might not be remarkable in the second half of the twentieth century, but I'm pretty sure it was uncommon in 1907 when a Times reporter (with typical mild condescension) described religious societies parading under brilliant arches of oil lights in glass cups and processions where shrines were carried on the shoulders of twenty men, adding: "Before, around, and behind them marched thousands of children, each carrying lighted candles. Even women with both arms holding babies managed to drag through the street and hold lighted candles in front of them. These were the Italians of the south of Italy."[8]

The San Rocco feast is also traditionally free of clerical mediation. Masses are said and blessings invoked, but the organization, leadership, and participation is generally outside the church hierarchy. San Rocco was not himself a member of the clergy and did not perform his services to the poor and the sick in conjunction with any religious organization. The Society of San Rocco in New York has always been free of church sponsorship. By arrangement, the San Rocco statue is kept in a church (first St. Joachim's, now St. Joseph's), but does not belong to the church. San Rocco's performance of miracles as an independent believer is very likely to be yet another source of the popularity he achieved among immigrant Italians. And it is also a probable source of the communal spirit which was one of the festa's defining characteristics.

San Rocco is usually shown baring his leg to show a plague wound along with a dog holding a loaf of bread in its mouth. The image at left below depicts the statue of New York's Società di San Rocco, which, as you can see, is formally called the Confraternita di S. Rocco, founded by the citizens from Potenza (It.) in New York, 1889.[9] The image at right shows this statue in procession in the late 1920s.

{At left: statue of San Rocco in St. Joseph's Church, New York. The image can be found on a number of web sites. At right: the same statue in procession in the late 1920s, detail of a photo in collections of the San Rocco Society.}

One last thought. There are San Rocco parishes in Italy and throughout the world where Italians have settled. The best known is probably the one in Venice which sits next to the famous Scuola Grande di San Rocco. The church is home to these two paintings by Tintoretto. The first shows San Rocco in Prison Visited by an Angel.

{San Rocco in prigione visitato da un angelo, 1567, Oil on canvas, 300 x 670 cm, Chiesa di San Rocco a Venezia}

The second shows San Rocco in a sick ward effecting a miraculous cure:

{San Rocco risana gli appestati, 1549, 300 x 671 sm, Chiesa di San Rocco a Venezia}

Detail of this painting:

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco contains only one painting of San Rocco. It shows his apotheosis.[10]

{San Rocco in Gloria, 1564, oil on canvas, 240 x 360 cm, ceiling decoration in the Sala dell'Albergo, Scuola Grande}

Of the many San Rocco (and St. Roch) parishes in the United States, one, now closed, is located among the slate quarries of south-central Pennsylvania. It's significant because the Italian immigrants of that community include many members of the in-law side of my family. At least some of these family members affectionately called the church "St. Rock."

{St Roch Parish (West Bangor), founded 1937, 141 Verona Avenue, Pen Argyl, PA, A Closed Parish of The Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown PA }



General note: All images in this blog post are reproduced under fair use provisions of copyright law or they are in the public domain.

[1] Jacob A. Riis, "Feast-Days in Little Italy,", The Century Magazine, August 1899.

[2] Peaceful San Rocco Day; Capulets and Montagues of Crooked Streets Reconciled. Candle-Bearers and Flower Girls of Rival Societies Meet in Procession Without Clash — Wax Legs and Arms For Sale, According to Custom — Shrines of Many Colors. Evening Post, August 16, 1907

[3] The San Rocco Society web page says the voti di cera are brought to church in gratitude for San Rocco's healing powers, but all the early sources say the people who purchased them and made offerings of them were afflicted or were acting on behalf of people who were afflicted with a disease or other medical condition. Source of quote: A Religious Festa; Statues of San Rocco Covered with Money Carried Through Streets. New York Daily Tribune, August 17, 1906

[4] A Religious Festa; Statues of San Rocco Covered with Money Carried Through Streets. New York Daily Tribune, August 17, 1906

[5] Peaceful San Rocco Day; Capulets and Montagues of Crooked Streets Reconciled. Candle-Bearers and Flower Girls of Rival Societies Meet in Procession Without Clash — Wax Legs and Arms For Sale, According to Custom — Shrines of Many Colors. Evening Post, August 16, 1907

[6] Quaint Italian Customs of Summer Festal Days; With Music, Gifts and Feasting the Denizens of Little Italy Pay Their Devotions to the Saints -- Curious Phases of the Celebrations. July 12, 1903

[7] The book is I Misteri di Mulberry Stritto by Bernardino Ciambelli, (New York, Frugone and Baletto, 1893). This passage was translated by Mario Maffi

[8] THOUSANDS OF ITALIANS IN ILLUMINATED PARADE; Night Procession Celebrates Feast of the Assumption. HONORS SAINT ROCC0 TO-DAY Great Shrines Carried on Men's Shoulders Through Streets. New York Times, August 16, 1906

[9] The web site of the San Rocco Society of Potenza (New York), says this about the statue:
The original statue of St. Rocco pictured above, was made in Italy and shipped to New York in the summer of 1889 and carried in the first annual Feast of St. Rocco on August 16,1889 on Roosevelt Street.

The statue was kept in a special chapel in St. Joachim's Church on Roosevelt Street. When St. Joachim's was demolished, the statue was taken to St. Joseph's Church, 5 Monroe Street, where it remains enshrined to this day.

The original statue is of magnificent artistic quality, made of Italian papier mache'. It weighs with it's base over 100 lbs.

As the statue aged, Angela Carnevale the Treasurer of the St. Rocco Society and then it's acting President and sole organizer decided to purchase the new statue, fearing the original priceless statue might be damaged while carrying it in the procession.

For the last 25 years or so a duplicate statue has been used for the Feast and Procession.

The original statue was "rented" by Francis Ford Coppola and used in the filming of "The Godfather II" during it's Festa di San Rocco scene. Only members of the Society were allowed to carry the statue in the film. The statue is the oldest Italian American religious society statue in New York.

The original statue can be seen at the rear left of the Church of St. Joseph, 5 Monroe Street, New York, New York. The "Feast" statue is stored during the year and brought out and placed on the main alter under a special canopy for the week prior to the Feast.
[10] This painting, "the glorification of St. Roch" or "assumption of San Rocco into heaven" was the first work of art commissioned for the Scuola. It's pride of place is the central position on the ceiling of the meeting chamber of the directors. One of these concillors had insisted that Tintoretto not be given the commission and he circumvented this prohibition by donating the painting and this led, eventually, to commissions to paint the many other works in the building. See Tintoretto on the web site of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.


Some sources:

Italian Festivals on the National Italian American Foundation web site

The Saint Rocco Society of Potenza home page of the New York San Rocco Society

The Feast of St. Rocco 121 Years Young, history page on web site of the New York San Rocco Society

Celebration of the Madonna Di Pierno Feast by Tom Frascella August 21, 2011 on the web site of the San Felese Society of New Jersey

Jacob A. Riis, "Feast-Days in Little Italy," THE CENTURY MAGAZINE, August 1899

Rocco di Montpellier in Wikipedia (Italian)

Saint Roch in Wikipedia (English)

LIFE Magazine (Vol. 3, No. 10, September 6, 1937) a feature on the San Rocco festa in New York City

The story of Saint Rocco the patron saint of pestilence on

Photographs and Lantern-Slide Lectures of Jacob Riis at

JACOB A. RIIS, REFORMER, DEAD; Social Worker Who Was Roosevelt's "Ideal American" Succumbs to Heart Disease. CLEARED MULBERRY BEND Made a Name and a Career as a Police Reporter -- Author of Several Books. New York Times, May 27, 1914.

St. Roch on the web site

St. Roch on the web site

Friends of Saint Roch, Montpellier, France

Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto Mannerist Artist Italian 1518 - 1594

historical facts regarding the life of Saint Roch on the Scuola Grande San Rocco web site

Michael Corrigan in Wikipedia

St. Joachim's Church in Wikipedia

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