Saint Rocco in the Streets of New York

By Beverly Stevens

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Vatican learnt by experience to address the needs of Catholic emigrants flung far from their homelands by the winds of politics and war. In the New World, the conflicts which not infrequently arose between national groups of immigrants and the Church of Saint Rocco’s origins are a familiar story of misunderstanding between English-speaking Irish-American Catholics and other, later immigrants.

In Glen Cove, Long Island both the Polish and Italian immigrants found difficulties at Saint Patrick, the local territorial parish. This led both to build their own churches, St Hyacinth for the Poles and St Rocco for the Italians.

In the 21st century, things have changed. “While the parish has gradually become more American, it still retains its Italian character insofar as we have a Mass in Italian every Sunday,” says Dom Elias Carr, of the Canons Regular, pastor. The Canons Regular of Saint Augustine of Stift Klosterneuburg, Austria assumed pastoral care of Saint Rocco and Saint Patrick on June 22, 2011, giving them the care of these neighboring and formerly estranged parishes.

“As a religious community we have cared for both parishes and since 2012 the regional Catholic school, All Saints, located on the campus of Saint Patrick.” Says Father Elias. The two parishes are a half-mile or so apart, sharing the same territory, Glen Cove and the neighboring villages.

Canonically erected as an Italian national parish in 1937, St Rocco’s parishioners hailed from all over Italy, though the largest groups came from the towns of Belvedere di Spinello in Calabria and Sturno in Campagna – both agricultural locales far from Italy’s teeming cities. The former especially honored Saint Marina, who once also had a feast in Glen Cove, and the latter were devoted to Saint Rocco, the patron of Sturno. Today many, though certainly not all, of St Rocco’s parishioners descend from these towns.

In 1975, the former missionary priest and pastor, Father Eligio della Rosa, brought St Rocco’s feast back after having fallen into desuetude.

“Glen Cove is a close knit community with numerous intergenerational families, setting it apart from the transient nature of most Long Island suburbs. ‘

“From the start, we have sought to introduce in both parishes (and the school) a God-centered celebration of the Mass as well as to foster a serious life of prayer with a renewal in respect and reverence for the church and the appreciation of the value of silence.”

With a common ars celebrandi the Canons move seamlessly between the parishes, celebrating Mass and the Sacraments, conducting religious education for all ages.  

We conduct a weekly adult Bible study, a monthly men’s group, a young adult’s group (Distilled Theology), a book discussion group (currently on Rene Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning), as well as extensive offerings for the Spanish speaking community (at St Patrick) and occasional catechesis in Italian.

Our greatest joy, therefore, has been the progress we have made in uniting the two parishes in our common faith and overcoming the wounds of the past.  We share not only priests, but also the director of faith formation oversees both programs.

The Canons have added solemnity to the procession.  One canon, or the honored celebrant (Father Scolaro), bears the relic in cope and birettum, assisted by servers, who hold the cope open, hoist the ombrellino or distribute medals and holy cards.

Each evening we celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours in the church (Vespers, Office of Readings and Night Prayer at different times).  We hold solemn benediction at the close of Vespers on three evenings.

“Besides the opening Mass on the last Tuesday of July, we have, on the evening before, a special Requiem Mass for deceased feast workers.  Forty years is a lot of time and many volunteers.”

We also invite the Italian prayer groups, a different one each evening, to lead the Rosary or devotions in the church and, more recently, we have added concerts in sacred music.

The highlight is the Feast Mass – often with a special celebrant (last year this was the newly ordained diocesan priest, Father Joseph Scolaro) – that kicks off the procession.

The statue of Saint Rocco is taken on a wagon through the neighborhood, the procession lasting up to three hours in the hot August sun. 

A large and diverse crowd walks all or part of the way, singing Italian hymns (including the Inno di San Rocco composed by Father della Rosa).

Many people come out of their homes, waiting for the procession to pass by, to venerate the relic, pin money on the statue, ask for Saint Rocco’s intercession, and see their friends and neighbors.

A Canon makes himself available to anoint the home bound while other canons greet the people and join in the merry-making .

In a true sense, Saint Rocco comes out of the church to visit his brothers and sisters, showing them that they too can become saints, no matter the challenges and difficulties they face as long as they place their trust in God. 

People participate despite the heat and humidity as an expression of their faith and their pride in their Italian heritage. 

“I believe processions including, of course, Corpus Christi processions, give people a chance to express their faith publicly and physically in the world, something that our increasingly small minded and bigoted society wants to deny us.” –  Fr Elias Carr

“It is comforting to belong to the Church of Saint Rocco where the members are devout in their faith and their Italian heritage.  When we participate in the procession together, it is a reminder that we are bonded by our Catholic faith.  As we make our pilgrimage through our community, it calls to mind the reason for celebrating The Feast of Saint Rocco, which is to honor our Patron Saint as well as publicly profess our Catholic faith.” – Pamela Leone, High School Student

“When we visit the homes of the elderly and sick parishioners and our Pastor, Father Elias blesses them with the Relic of St. Rocco, and they see the procession with many of the other parishioners, it gives them a sense of peace and joy knowing of the support in prayers and love from everyone. – Michael Flynn, college student

It is a pleasure to be a part of the procession, as it enables the youth to be active in the Church community.  We are reminded of the significance of the procession as we greet the elderly and homebound throughout the neighborhood. It is evident in their smiles that they are appreciative of the songs and prayers that have come their way.  – Melissa Leone, High School Student

Every procession has its own special character inasmuch as each people have traditions that have been gradually taken up into the Christian cultural patrimony. By participating in procession, we pay homage and render public recognition to Jesus, to the Blessed Virgin or to the saints, who are borne in the procession. The lights, that is, the candles which are carried in procession, show that we are walking toward the light that is Christ. – Luigi Greco, Youth Minister

Just as it has been done for the past 39 years, this year’s 40th annual feast will celebrate our patron Saint Rocco by processing the statue through the streets of our city as the woman sing and hundreds march behind our loving saint and the resident line the sidewalks to pay homage by offering gifts of money and jewelry which they pin onto the cape of St Rocco which is handmade and the relics reinforced each year by our faithful parishioners who care for the cape.

“The much anticipated Feast of St Rocco is a true testament to time and tradition. Of course the food is great and the visitors number in the tens of thousands but what ties it all together and puts it into the true context of the meaning of faith is our closing procession. Many things change in our world but the Feast of St. Rocco continues to be a tradition that withstands the tests of time.” – Hon. Reggie Spinello, Mayor of Glen Cove

Our faith is embodied, public and visual as well as spiritual, private and invisible. We are Catholics – we want it all – because it is our right as human beings to express our faith without fear in a fully human manner.  Processions give voice to this deep desire. – Fr Elias Carr, Pastor

I have memories of Italy as a small child and how my home town celebrated the feast of Saint Rocco. The entire town would celebrated the feast, People would come from all over just to be a part of it and to enjoy the food, the people, the songs and the devotion to Saint Rocco.  Our feast depicts all these things, it is a wonderful celebration.  Join us, come see for yourself, spend time in our church. Share in the memories. Rocco  Ieraci  

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