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St. Lucy’s, a Feast, and the Old Neighborhood

Today is the feast day of St. Gerard Majella. This past weekend I went back to St. Lucy’s in the Old First Ward to pay homage to the saint, the church, and my heritage.

The corner of 7th Avenue and Cutler St.' the corner of the Old First Ward
The corner of 7th Avenue and Cutler St.’ the corner of the Old First Ward. (credit: Andrea Lyn Van Benschoten)

In its heyday, the Old First Ward was the fifth largest Little Italy in the country. As many as 30,000 Italian immigrants lived in the one square mile around St. Lucy’s. The church was the mainstay of the neighborhood. It supported new immigrants upon arrival to their new country, it taught them English, helped their children with school, and provided a little bit of comfort and home in an unfamiliar place.

And now, it is all gone… except St. Lucy’s.

Just as it did over 100 years ago, it stands as a beacon of what was. And members of the old neighborhood make a pilgrimage back to the Old First Ward to pray, celebrate, and remember.

This year was the 124th Feast of St. Gerard. As usual, it was packed. The blankets of money were draped on him. Women carried their babies that were conceived and delivered by the intercession of St. Gerard. When the children are old enough, parents begin to share the legacy they are a part of and the importance of carrying it forward.

This year, I had a unique opportunity. To share this heritage to two individuals who were new to this important celebration.

State of the Madonna delle Neve at St. Lucy's Church, Newark, NJ
State of the Madonna delle Neve at St. Lucy’s Church, Newark, NJ (credit: Andrea Lyn Van Benschoten)

On Saturday I received a text from a very well-respected colleague who said she would like to attend. To say I was stunned was putting it lightly. “Why would she want to come here?” I thought over and over. But I was very excited to share such an important part of my life. I kept in touch with her and she arrived at the church before St. Gerard was brought out of the church.

She brought another colleague with her. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous about sharing all this with an “outsider.” I really didn’t know what they would think.

Oh how wrong I was!

After picking up some sausage and peppers, I started to tell them the history of the area. The neighborhood. The support system. The importance of St. Lucy’s. How my great-grandmother would stay after morning mass, and along with the other women of the neighborhood, would clean the church. That they would hide their rags behind their patron saints. I told them about the Madonna della Neve, the patron saint of my family’s home in Italy – Calabritto.

I shared the legacy of St. Gerard. How so many different feasts had travelled across the ocean, but one by one, they all came to an end – except St. Gerard. How women would pray to him to conceive. How they would pray for a safe delivery and a healthy baby. Then those mothers would bring their children to the church to pay homage to St. Gerard. The men, generation after generation in their maroon jackets, stood tall alongside him to help pin money and capes to ribbons.

St. Gerard out the doors of St. Lucy's Church, Newark, NJ
St. Gerard out the doors of St. Lucy’s Church, Newark, NJ. (credit: Andrea Lyn Van Benschoten)

Finally, the one question I expected was asked, “don’t they worry about all that money out in the open?”

My answer was simple; “never.”

Not only is this event well-protected by police from all over Essex County, everyone there would never let anything happen.

Then another question; “what is the money comes off a ribbon?” I told them I’ve never seen that happen, but I was confident people would chase after it, collect it and bring it back to be re-pinned.

At one point I said to them, “I’m sure this is all a bit odd looking from the outside.” Their answer? Certainly not! They would’ve never known about this event had I not shared information about it. They appreciated that I have given them so much information about the history and they could see how special this is to so many.

It validated what I have known all along. We all have a pride and a love of our heritage and are eager to share it with others.

We have a rich culture that is worthy of celebration.

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