By: Raymond Guarini
Stephen LaRocca, the president of the Saint Rocco Society of Potenza, will tell you that this year’s celebration was a miracle. Who would think that a procession which traverses Little Italy, parts of Chinatown and the Two Bridges neighborhoods of lower Manhattan would be given the green light in an historical year such as 2020 in which parades were canceled, cities were shut down, and pandemonium was unleashed with reckless abandon. Saint Rocco, venerated by Catholics in times of plague, was not refused the opportunity to have his statue processed at a time when humanity needed him most. For such a procession, albeit socially distanced, to take place, was the culmination of blessings beginning with the passion and dedication of the Saint Rocco Society of Potenza’s president, Stephen LaRocca. To shut down the busiest streets in the busiest city in the country on August 16th required a tremendous amount of diligence from the coordinators as well as the support from the NYPD, who has so vigilantly ensured the safety of the procession every year. Last and certainly not least, the Church of The Most Precious Blood was marvelously accommodating in letting this 131st feast begin with a beautiful mass in an historical church, especially to Italian Americans.
The feast and procession of Saint Rocco first began on Catherine Street at Saint Joachim and Anne and with that church’s closure, the feast was moved to Saint Joseph on Catherine Street. Saint Joachim and Anne was eventually demolished. The feast continued vibrantly for years at Saint Joseph (San Giuseppe to the Italian immigrants from the neighborhood as the church’s exterior writing says). When Saint Joseph church was closed, the feast and procession was then moved to the Church of The Most Precious Blood in Little Italy. The procession follows this transition as the statue of Saint Rocco is dutifully carried by the devoted from Little Italy to the old Church of Saint Joseph and back to Little Italy, where the statue is then processed along Mulberry Street and the statue is stopped in front of businesses that make a donation to pin on the Saint.
The following photographs show the dedication by Stephen LaRocca and the society. Weeks before the procession, society members meet at the Church of The Most Precious Blood to put the statue on the altar of the church and adorn Saint Rocco with flowers. One of the days on which we arrived to prepare was San Donato’s feast day, so Stephen could not come without purchasing flowers to present to San Donato in a show of devotion and love. As the society members prepare the statue and the platform on which the statue is carried, many minor details are ironed out that are excruciatingly important on the day of the procession. Everything must be tightened and sturdy to endure a long walk with winds that can sway the statue or uneven streets that can disrupt the lifters’ balance. There are sashes and bows that are placed on the altar and pews. There is a decades old candelabra which must be brought to the front of the church and then also included in the procession. There is the coordination of a DJ who remains outside the church as well as the intricacies of managing the society’s social media coverage. Many painstaking details exist that could not be done without the diligence of the society. Stephen practically plans each year’s procession the minute the current year’s procession is completed.
The procession is led from the Church of The Most Precious Blood to the closed Saint Joseph (San Giuseppe) church in the Two Bridges neighborhood. The Statue is stopped in front of the church and the band plays songs to signal the arrival of Saint Rocco. Then the statue is taken across the street where remaining Italian devotees living in the Knickerbocker Village Apartment building can see the statue and pin donations in exchange for prayer requests. The lifters then wait for one resident who year after year pours a shower of rose petals from her apartment window onto the statue and the lifters in a show of continued devotion to the Saint. The procession then moves to the former Vanella Funeral Home where tables are set up outside with beverages of water and wine for devotees and society members walking in the procession to cool off. Italian music is played by the band including the tarantella. Stephen and his lovely wife Lucia, amongst others, dance the tarantella and enjoy the respite with other Southern Italian folk music. The procession is then resumed where the statue is taken to the beginning of Mulberry Street at the former location of Mulberry Bend. The statue is then walked along the entirety of Mulberry Street from business to business where shop owners come out to pin donations to the statue.
This year, masks were worn in accordance with regulations because of the plague that has swept its way through the world. Nevertheless, despite a smaller procession and the overarching fears, Saint Rocco was carried by his devotees in a tradition that has miraculously endured 131 years with no pause. Many feel that the circumstances which gave Stephen LaRocca and the society members the blessing to press on with this procession was divine in its origin, and provided all the facts to consider, they may very well be right.
To see photos of previous processions of Saint Rocco before the great pandemic, please purchase a copy of New York City’s Italian Neighborhoods in the following link. All proceeds are donated to the Italian Enclaves Historical Society and the Saint Rocco Society of Potenza, both 501c3 organizations: https://www.arcadiapublishing.com/Products/9781467104401