SOUTHINGTON — For the longest time, Southington residents Amato and Carmella Salzillo made sure they returned every year to their hometown of Alvignanello, Italy in time for the day after Easter. It was important to the married couple to be at home, to celebrate the patron saint of their small mountaintop community.
“We grew up with the tradition,” Amato said.
“When you believe in something and have that faith, it helps you in your life,” Carmella said.
If they were willing to travel all the way to Italy to participate, there is no way they would miss the final day of the 14th annual Southington Italian-American Festival on Sunday.
The festival might have been held on Center Street, but its heart was most assuredly in the mountains and coasts of southern Italy. Each little town and hamlet there has its own patron saint, which gives each place its own identity and unique opportunity to celebrate. Festivals usually begin with a Mass and a procession through the town carrying a statue of the saint. Then the community gathers for food, music, and a fair.
“(This event) continues the traditions of Italy that the older generations remember from their childhoods. We hope it rubs off on a younger generation,” said Antonio Cusano, president of the local chapter of the Sons of Italy and co-chair of the festival.
Sunday’s festivities started with a Mass in honor of the Madonna della Strada (Our Lady of the Good Road), celebrated in Italian by the Rev. Frederick Aniello of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Waterbury.
“Waterbury e lontano da qui,” Aniello said, prompting a chuckle from the crowd. Waterbury is far from here.
After Mass the procession made its way from Center Street, down Liberty Street, and back around the block. Led by Italian and American flags and the banner of the Roman Catholic Church, St. Vincent’s Italian-American Band from Meriden played brassy tunes that drowned out the ladies from the Italian Rosary Society praying right behind them.
“Santa Maria, madre di dio, prego per peccatori,” they chanted. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners.
Representatives from the Knights of Columbus, dressed in black suits, capes with either red or white lining, and plumed hats, and bearing thin swords, provided an honor guard for the statue of the Madonna, carried by a group of men. The statue was festooned with flowers and a ribbon pinned with dollar bills.
Southington resident Maria Gagnon followed the parade closely, watching her daughters Ava, 8, Emma, 6 and Marisa, also 6, as they walked next to the statue. Gagnon’s parents were born in Treglia, Caserta, and she went back to Italy every couple of years.
“It was a highlight of my childhood,’ Gagnon said.
It will be harder for her children to embrace those traditions, but that doesn't mean she’ll stop trying.
“I hope that they take away the feeling of pride in the Italian culture and the importance of family and faith,” Gagnon said.
Maria Della Porta, a Southington native, handed out water to the procession as they stopped to pray. Her parents were born in Liberi and Castel Campagninno in Caserta, respectively.
“I am fluent in Italian, but not very literate,” she said. “I grew up with my parents speaking the language. We had very strong traditions.”
Like Gagnon, making sure these traditions live past her parents and her is something really important.
“It is meaningful that I can share this with my children who have not really seen it,” Della Porta said.
Cusano summed up the feeling around the procession Sunday morning, a time when Italian lilted on everyone’s lips and for a few hours, the old country wasn’t so far away.
“I am proud of my heritage. I am proud of what my parents’ sacrificed to come to this country for my sister and I to have a better life,” he said.