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The Church May Close, But the Festa Will Go On

The Church May Close, But the Festa Will Go On

Stephanie Longo (August 31, 2008)
Statues of Sts. Mary, Joseph, Rocco, and Anthony leave St. Rocco's Church in Dunmore, Pa. as part of the annual procession in honor of St. Rocco on August 10.

Despite a possible closure, the parish community of St. Rocco in Dunmore, Pa. celebrates the shared heritage of the Bunker Hill neighborhood.


Over one hundred years ago, a group of Italian immigrants arrived in what is now known as the “Bunker Hill” section of Dunmore, Pennsylvania. These immigrants came from the small Southern Italian town of Guardia dei Lombardi, located east of the city of Naples in the Province of Avellino.

When these immigrants arrived from Guardia, they brought along their devotion to St. Rocco. According to Guardiese history, a deadly plague swept through the town in 1656, killing 1,110 of its 1,475 residents. The year before, Fr. Nunzio Di Leo, the town’s priest known for his philanthropic works, left 20 ducats in his will for the construction of a chapel to St. Rocco. Fr. Di Leo himself died while ministering to the sick during the plague.
According to Fr. Antonio Parziale, former pastor of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Guardia dei Lombardi, St. Rocco has always been venerated by the Guardiesi, especially during plagues. In his book, Guardia Lombardi: Notizie di Storia Civile e Religiosa, Fr. Parziale explained how the procession to St. Rocco began during the plague of 1656:
“Durante la midiciale peste del 1656, su riferita dal Vescovo Mons. Ciantes, una tradizione orale ci ha tramandato che il popolo di Guardia, guidato dal suo clero, indisse una processione di preghiere e di penitenza per implorare la pioggia—la siccità durava già due anni—e l’arresto dell’incipiente peste, così violenta e aggressiva.” (Page 472)
(Translation: “During the deadly plague of 1656, according to Bishop Ciantes, an oral tradition spread that the people of Guardia, guided by its clergy, began a procession of prayers and penance to beg for rain—the drought had already lasted two years—and to end the violent and aggressive developing plague.”)
By the time the Guardiese immigrants had arrived in Dunmore, the procession to St. Rocco had been an integral part of life in their “paese” for over 250 years. They brought this tradition to Dunmore, where the St. Rocco Festival is celebrated annually in August. “Almost everyone in our parish can trace their Italian ancestry back to Guardia dei Lombardi,” explained Chris Murray, chairman of the St. Rocco Festival. “Our ancestors paraded the saints through Bunker Hill and we are trying to keep that tradition alive.”
However, when preliminary recommendations were released this past July as a part of “Called to Holiness and Mission,” the Diocese of Scranton’s comprehensive planning project, the diocesan planning commission suggested that St. Rocco’s Parish close and consolidate with St. Anthony’s Parish, also located in Dunmore. At present, the two parishes are linked with a common pastor, Fr. David Cappelloni.
“Called to Holiness and Mission” began in December of 2007 when Bishop Joseph Martino of the Diocese of Scranton released the project, designed to focus on the diocese’s spiritual and pastoral renewal. Each of the diocese’s 224 parishes was to form a core group to discuss a parish’s particular needs. Then, the parishes were united into clusters based on geographic location to further discuss what should be done with each of the parishes. Results from the core group and cluster group discussions were then presented to the diocesan planning commission in mid-June.
Following a three-day retreat in late June, the planning commission released its preliminary suggestions in late July.
“We need to emphasize that these are preliminary recommendations; this is not the final plan,” said Monsignor Vincent J. Grimalia, V.G., director of “Called to Holiness and Mission” in a Diocese of Scranton press release. “As we have said all along, nothing has been predetermined and no decisions have been made. There will be a lot more discussion and input at the parish and cluster levels before we reach that point.”
Although, understandably, parishioners of St. Rocco’s are worried about their church’s future; Fr. Cappelloni, in his homily on August 10 before the festival’s procession in honor of St. Rocco, told the standing-room-only crowd that they should not be afraid of what the future will bring.
“The faith of the community, that is what’s important. We are celebrating the faith of St. Rocco; this church building has been the reservoir of faith for many years, that’s something we can never forget,” he said.
When discussing the possible parish consolidation, Fr. Cappelloni said, “Our futures are intertwined but our traditions will last forever. This parish is over 100 years old; that means you’ve been having this procession for over 100 years. You will have it for another 100 years because it celebrates your faith.”
While Fr. Cappelloni is trying to prepare the St. Rocco’s community for a worst-case scenario, members of the community expressed their desire to see their parish stay open.
“I don’t think the parishioners would mind so much if the church was financially linked with St. Anthony’s,” Murray said. “But we don’t want it to close, there is so much tradition here and so many strong families to keep it going. If we can get the financial support we need and if we have a priest who is willing to say mass here, I don’t see why it should close.”
“Everyone would be devastated if St. Rocco’s were to close,” said Ann Marie Longo, who was born in Dunmore and who now resides in Scranton. Longo’s grandparents arrived in Bunker Hill from Guardia dei Lombardi. Her father, Joe Longo, was born in Guardia and was a prominent Dunmore barber.
“My father brought me here every year when I was little; I was always fascinated by the festival. The people of this parish are doing such a great job celebrating their Guardiese-Italian roots. If this parish were to close, it would be a sin,” Longo said. “This festival also includes non-Italian-Americans in the celebration of our heritage, we’re proud of where we came from.”
Because of its recent linkage with St. Anthony’s, also an ethnically Italian parish, this year marked the first time in its 100-year history that a statue of St. Anthony of Padua was carried in the procession.
“I think it is wonderful that they added St. Anthony to the procession,” said Philomena Errico of Bunker Hill, who has been a member of St. Rocco’s Parish her entire life. “They also used to carry a statue of St. Michael the Archangel but it got too old to be carried so it is now in the church. But the traditional saints were always the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and St. Rocco.”
Despite its uncertain future, it is clear that the members of St. Rocco’s Parish are proud of their heritage and parish community.
“For me, St. Rocco’s Festival has been a family tradition for four generations,” said Frank Castellano, who was one of the workers at the festival. “My great-grandfather arrived from Guardia dei Lombardi in the 1880s and we were one of the founding families of this parish. We don’t take this festival lightly.”
“Obviously, we don’t want this parish to close; it is more than just a building, more than just a place of worship,” Castellano added. “It is a family, a community; everyone who participates in this community in any way participates with their whole heart and soul. Our parish is as alive and well as ever.”
Relic of St. Rocco
Hymn: “Great Saint Rocco”
Refrain:                 Oh! Great Saint Rocco, our Patron Saint!
                                Watch over us and guide us, keep us in good faith.
                                Your great devotion was the sign of the cross.
                                Keep us from sin lest our souls be lost.
You renounced all wealth, gave your money to the poor.
You helped all sinners so to God they’d be lured.
Once when you were sick you withdrew to a cave.
And there a dog with food for you gave. (Refrain)


St. Rocco's Church, Dunmore, Pa. c. 1921

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sciorra's picture

closings & tags


Thanks for the post. Closings are happening across the country as part of a host of interrelated issues. At the end of the month I'll post on a similar situation in Brooklyn.

May I offer a suggestion regarding post tags? You might want to consider including broader tags, e.g. "religion," "Catholics," "Pennsylvania," etc., so as to increase the associations within i-italy and beyond.