The Feast of St. Gerard
Friday, Oct. 13, 2023 to Monday, Oct. 16, 2023
St. Lucy’s Church
118 Seventh Avenue, Newark, NJ
In the back of St. Lucy’s Church in Newark is a dim chapel where the carved likeness of Gerard Majello is kept. Throughout most of the year, visitors gather here at the foot of the marble altar to ask for blessings. Last week, nine church members met there to partake in an annual tradition of taking down the wooden statue to redress the saint in new garbs in time for his autumn celebration called the Feast of St. Gerard.
“The elders are slowly passing the torch down to us,” said Gerard DiPopolo, 41, who is part of the committee that organizes the festival. “The majority of what we do each year is the same as when it started.”
The Feast of St. Gerard, which spans the first two weeks in October, was first celebrated in Newark in 1899, when the city was the nation’s fifth-largest Italian enclave. Father Joseph Perrotti, the head of the church, is credited with reviving the festival for his flock who mostly hailed from Italy’s Avellino province, where a priest named Gerardo Maiello (note the original spelling) performed miracles in the 18th century.
Originally, these immigrants held processions throughout the year devoted to a pantheon of saints. In Newark, only the Feast of St. Gerard survived, growing in fervor over the last 124 years due to the large community from the Naples region that settled in the city’s First Ward.
The legend of St. Gerard, born in 1726, comes from the small town of Muro, Italy, near Naples. The wonderworker’s holy handkerchief is credited with saving a pregnant woman from a miscarriage. That is how he became the patron saint of motherhood and is often associated with handkerchiefs, which St. Lucy’s sells as souvenirs. The statue’s garb that is removed each year is cut into hundreds of pieces, symbolizing tiny handkerchiefs, and distributed to those who wish to ward off hardships or misfortune.
“People come all year long for blessings,” DiPopolo said. “Women who have been told there’s no way you can have children, they come and pray to Saint Gerard — and miracles happen every year.”
DiPopolo, who was born on Oct. 16, the day of the feast, was named after the saint, as are many children of families who grew up in Newark’s First Ward.
“Whenever I meet someone with first or middle name Gerard — the first thing I ask them is, where did your family live in Newark?” Gerard said. “There is a strong affiliation with St. Gerard and this neighborhood.”
One of the well-known customs during the Feast of St. Gerard is a two-hour procession in which the statue is carried through the streets of the city’s North Ward, as the crowd pins money to it. “People are surprised that we walk through Newark with so much money, but no one ever bothers us,” said Anthony Dalbo, another committee member who is DiPopolo’s cousin.
The parade route is significant because it meanders through what used to be Little Italy until the 1950s. While many Newarkers escaped the city after the 1967 riots, First Ward residents were forced out by eminent domain much earlier. Their beloved neighborhood was leveled for a housing project called the Columbus Homes. All that remains of a once famous Eighth Avenue, lined with cafes and restaurants, is a sliver of row houses near the I-280 on-ramp.
“While we’re walking during the procession we hear a lot of stories about where our friends and families grew up,” Dalbo said.
The feast began this week with nine days of prayer called a novena and culminates next weekend in a three-day festival with food, wine, and live music. More than 20 food trucks gather at the plaza in front of St. Lucy’s, selling Italian delicacies from zeppoles to fresh mozzarella. Next year, the church anticipates its largest showing for its 125th anniversary.
Father Thomas Nicastro in his book The Feast of St. Gerard Maiello called the annual celebration a “pilgrimage” for people with roots in Newark.
“Those who come to venerate St. Gerard are descendants of villagers who actually lived and worked beside St. Gerard in the old country,” Nicastro wrote. “You can see it in their eyes, in their faces and in their hearts as they recount the memories and miracles of their parents and grandparents still present to them in the hallowed walls of the magnificent church.”
The Feast of St. Gerard began yesterday with nine days of prayer called a novena. Each night is devoted to a cause, such as autism, dementia, cancer, infertility, even a Blue Mass for police officers and firemen. Find the prayer schedule at St. Lucy’s website. The festival culminates in a weekend festival on Oct. 13-16.