117-Year-Old Chicago-Area Festival Has Sicilian Roots Dating Back To The 1600s
A centuries-old Catholic festival set to take place in Niles over Labor Day weekend has roots to the 1600s in Sicily and dates back 117 years to the Chicago area.
The 117th annual Feast of Maria SS. Lauretana of Altavilla Milicia in Chicago will take place Friday, Sept. 1 to Monday, Sept. 4 on Church Street between the Golf Mill Shopping Center and Golf Mill Park.
Between 15,000-to-20,000 people attended the four-day event last year, according to Deputy Niles Police Chief Vince Genualdi. Religious highlights of the festival include the Procession of the Vera, the Flight of the Angels and the pulling of a large ship. The festival also includes secular entertainment, a fireworks display, carnival rides, food, vendors and a beer tent.
A group of up to 60 men will carry the Vera, a two-ton altar on a wooden base with a portrait of the Virgin Mary on top, down Church Street. They will make stops for people to give offerings and kiss the face of the image of Mary.
After about two blocks, the Vera will be placed between two high scaffolds, where two young girls in dresses — one in pink the other in blue — will be tied by the waist and one ankle onto a pulley system of ropes high above the Vera, where they will “fly” out over the crowd to sing a religious song in Italian. The Vera will be moved several times Sunday, after which additional Flights of the Angels will take place.
Entertainment Friday night features Tony Ocean performing Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and other songs of the 1960s Rat Pack. Saturday will see the Wind Gypsies perform in the afternoon, before the band 7th Heaven will perform later that evening. Monday evening will be emceed by Gino Nuccio with music by Vincenzo LaFranza, Mike and Victoria and DJ Tony Spavone.
The story of the shrine to the Virgin Mary in Altavilla Milicia, Sicily started in the 1600s when an image of Mary was looted by pirates. Traveling off the Sicilian coast, the pirates found the painting of Mary in a barrel. They blamed the portrait for the violent seas and believed it was responsible so tossed it overboard near between several Sicilian towns including Altavilla Milicia, Joe Camarda, president of the Maria SS. Lauretana of Altavilla Milicia in Chicago Society since 1966, said.
Legend said village leaders from several towns found the portrait of Mary washed up on shore and hitched oxen to a cart, intending to build a church and shrine with the recovered relic from the ship wherever the oxen stopped, Camarda continued. The oxen stopped in Altavilla Milicia where a church was built.
Immigrants from Sicily brought the festival to the Little Sicily neighborhood near North and Clybourn avenues in 1900. Angelo Camarada, chairman of the Maria SS. Lauretana of Altavilla Milicia in Chicago Society, said the festival moved to other suburbs, including Rosemont, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and more recently Berwyn until 2014. The first festival in Niles took place in 2015.
Festival Hours are 4 p.m. to midnight Friday, Sept. 1 and Saturday, Sept. 2; noon to midnight Sunday, Sept. 3; and 3 to 10 p.m. Monday, Sept. 4. There will also be a special procession and Mass in Golf Mill Park with a procession at 9 a.m. and mass at 10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 3. The festival will have other religious observances Saturday and Sunday. The festival will include Italian and pop music Sept. 1, 2 and 4.