The Saints Go Marching

Nov 16, 2012 2121

An oompah band played "When the Saints Go Marching In" as members of New Haven's oldest Italian-American mutual aid society carried its dollar-and-jewelry-bedecked patron through the streets of Wooster Square Sunday afternoon. It was the 114th year of the Old World-style ritual, and 73-year-old Patti Masto-Toni has participated in 73 of them.

The procession by the Santa Maria Maddalena Society attracted more than 100 people. Many like Masto-Toni (pictured) descended from the first Italian immigrants to New Haven from Atrani, a town on the Amalfi coast.

Masto-Toni's grandfather, Thomas Aquero, was one of the founders of Santa Maria Maddalena Society in 1898. Two years later he helped raise money for a statue of Atrani's patron saint, and the formal processions began. They have continued ever since.

Carried as a baby or walking on her own, Masto-Toni has never missed the occasion, she said.

Crowds mobbed the streets back in the day, some old-timers recalled. People would come out to pin dollars on the saint's image to ask for intercession. The money went to the society, which used it to help provide housing, jobs, and English lessons for the new arrivals.

Before she went in for the mass preceding the parade, Masto-Toni (pictured) pinned a neatly folded check on the lavender-colored sash of a synthetic likeness of the original silver and gold-laden statue, which is inside St. Michael's.

"I'm the oldest child, so I keep the tradition up," said Masto-Toni, who grew up with her parents and grandparents on Brown Street and now lives in Morris Cove. "He [her grandfather] used to have a saint on the front lawn. I have mine in the bedroom."

As the mass began, the statue was led down the central aisle of St. Michael's by officials of the Knights of Columbus in sword and sash regalia and carried by strong men wearing blue sleeveless vests with the monogram of the society. The statue and platform carrying the bust of the saint weigh about 80 pounds.

Father Ralph Colicchio and Deacon Richard Santello presided over the mass. It included prayers for the recently deceased including the victims, the wounded, and their families in the mass killing that occurred Friday in a crowded screening of the new Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado.

As the procession formed after mass, Masto-Toni knelt before the original statue in the southeast corner of the church, where it resides because it is too fragile for transport. She lit a votive candle in memory of her relatives as she does daily at home.

"The purpose is to pay tribute to our saint and our ancestors. All they [the original immigrants] had [when they arrived from Ellis Island] was faith in their patron saint," said Anthony Vitolo, the society's vice president. The full name of the society includes "di muto sciorssio," which means mutual help, he added.

Winding on Greene Street, up Olive, and onto St. John, the Carozza Band's marching music attracted the attention of Anna Anastasia. She came down the steps of her brick row house. The statue of Mary was lowered so Anastasia could pin a few greenbacks onto her. As she did, the procession and the music paused. You could almost hear history in the silence.

"My mother [Zhiarina Anastasia] did it [in the 1950s], and now I do," she said.

Before returning to their clubhouse at 123 Wooster St. for a party, the processioneers stopped for espresso, pastries, and a rest at the clubhouse of St. Andrew the Apostle Society on Chapel Street. St. Andrew's is the second oldest of the the city's societies, having been founded in 1900.

Speakers again referenced the Aurora killings. Underlying the mutual aid societies' camaraderie, they said, lies a bedrock of caring for each other that anchors a community and that needs to be reinforced as touchstone today.

Columbus Day Parade organizer extraordinaire Theresa Argento also announced that this year's New Haven-based parade will be on Oct. 7 and have a new feature. After the noon to 1 p.m. march, Wooster Square Park will be open with all-day activities until 6, culminating in an outdoor screening of a movie.

Patti Masto-Toni said that she planned Sunday evening to prepare the saint's day traditional meal for 15, including her grandkids, The meal features "sarchiapone," Italian green squash stuffed with minced meat and egg served in a tomato sauce.

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