HAMMONTON — The longest-running Italian festival in the United States concluded earlier this week, in gratitude and praise to Our Lady of Mount Carmel for her protection and intercessions these past 144 years.
“She means everything to me,” said Eileen Bilder, waiting outside Saint Joseph Church on July 15, the vigil of the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the last day of the novena to the Blessed Mother, who presented Saint Simon Stock with the brown scapular in 1521.
“She’s been in my life since I was a child,” Bilder continued, adding that this is her 15th consecutive year at the week-long festival. “I’ve been blessed to live in a town that honors Our Lady.”
Before the festival concluded with a procession on the feast day, there were days filled with games, amusements, food and live bands each night.
On July 16, 1875, Italian immigrants and their families began the devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, thanking her for a successful passage to America and a good harvest.
Today, the church community of Saint Mary of Mount Carmel and the Society of Our Lady of Mount Carmel keep the tradition not only alive but vibrant.
“We have someone to go to and thank for helping us every day,” said Marie Purnell, president of the parish’s Altar Rosary Society. Every evening of the novena, society members gathered in the church, holding their rosaries in prayer.
In a letter to his faithful, Father David Rivera, parish administrator, reminded them that “in the midst of all the fun and festivities we can never lose sight of the reason for our joy, namely, that the Virgin Mother of Jesus, Our Lady of Mount Carmel heard the cries and petitions of her children here in Hammonton so many years ago. We turn to the Blessed Mother again … to again seek her motherly intercession.”
As well, he told all “to take this opportunity to spread our Catholic faith and welcome people back home. Bringing more souls to Jesus is the best way to honor Our Lady of Mount Carmel and would make our celebrations ever more special.”
Running the food and drink stands during the festival’s run were more than 200 hardworking volunteers, including members of the parish youth group.
“This is a cool tradition. I’m glad to be here,” mentioned Theo Heiland, who, with fellow members Kyle Delessio and Miranda Mojica, was working the pizza booth.
“Every year, I come here with my brother and parents,” Mojica said, adding that as a carnival enthusiast, she loves the swing ride, and the Zero Gravity ride — a high speed amusement that has riders stand against the wall of a cylinder that spins and rises at a 70-degree angle.
Mojica, who obviously has a strong stomach, said, “The sausage and peppers are fantastic, as well as the chicken tenders and fries.”
The Our Lady of Mount Carmel festival concluded with feast day Masses (one celebrated by Bishop Dennis Sullivan) in the English and Italian languages, and a procession through the street of images that included, in addition to the Blessed Mother, those of Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Lucy Filippini, Saint Martin de Porres and others.