There is no other title for the Blessed Mother that is more revered among Italians than that of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
In the Beginning 1894-1929
Mrs. Emanuella De Stefano came to the United States circa 1870 and bought property – farmland – at 25th Street and North Avenue. In 1894, Mrs. DeStefano’s husband became ill. Her fervent prayers to Our Lady of Mount Carmel spared his life, and in thanksgiving, Emanuella collected funds from her friends and commissioned Neapolitan artist Raffelle della Campa to create a replica of the famous statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel that was long-venerated in a church in Laurenzana, Provincia Potenza.
The statue arrived at the De Stefano farm, and it was here that the first Feast Mass was held in Melrose Park with the new statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July 16, 1894.
By the first anniversary of the Feast in 1895, Mrs. De Stefano purchased two lots on 24th Avenue on which was built the first church. Father Thomas Moreschini, a Servite Father from Assumption Church in Chicago, would travel by horse and buggy to Melrose Park on Sundays to say Mass, teach catechism and administer the Sacraments.
Although there was no parish that housed the statue at the close of the 19th century, two important sodalities were established to venerate the image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Melrose Park.Societa’ Maria SS. Del Monte Carmelo di Chicago, Illinoiswas established in February 1894 andCongrega di Maria Vergine Del Monte Carmelowas established in May 1896.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel was designated a parish in 1903, and its first resident pastor was Father Antonio Petillo, a priest from the Servite order, who only stayed in Melrose Park for two years. Fr. Antonio left the parish, as the few parishioners appeared unable to support a resident priest. Soon afterwards, at the request of Archbishop James Quigley, the Scalabrinian order consented to permit Father Benjamin Franch – recently arrived from Italy – to take charge of the fledgling parish. His first total Sunday collection was 75 cents and his congregation numbered only 12 persons.
Under Father Franch’s leadership, the parish grew, and it became necessary to acquire more land for a newer, larger church. In 1907, the frame chapel was moved to new land acquired on the east side of 23rd Avenue, between Augusta and Cortez Streets (then “Eleventh Street”).
In order to raise the money needed to build a new church, Father Franch organized the Congregazione Parrocchiale Maria Santissima Del Monte Carmelo. Founded on September 9, 1906, this was the first parochial society established by Father Franch. In February, 1908 work was begun on a new church building, and on May 2, the most Rev. James E. Quigley dedicated the little, ornate church that measured 150’ x 40.’ It was built in a Roman style, typical of village churches found all over Italy. Father Franch, himself a trained stone mason, closely supervised its construction. In 1909 a new altar was dedicated in honor of St. Michael, and in 1910, another altar was added for St. Rocco.
The original chapel remained adjacent to the “new church,” until it was necessary to dismantle the small, wooden shrine to make room for a new school, which opened on September 8, 1913, with 250 students and staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of La Grange, Illinois. The first graduating class of Our Lady of Mount Carmel School was in 1914 – and boasted just two students. The next year (1915) saw seven graduates – five girls and two boys. That same year, these five girls became the charter members of theYoung Ladies’ Sodality, which strove to inspire girls to “striving for the virtues required in a child of Mary.”
The decade of the 1920s began in Melrose Park with one of the worst tragedies the Village has ever experienced. On March 28, 1920, a tornado swept through the village, moving northeast from Main and 17th to Division and 11th. The tornado continued its northeast trajectory, causing damage in Chicago and Evanston before dissipating over Lake Michigan. In its path, it destroyed approximately 50 homes and damaged almost 100 more in Melrose Park. Our neighboring parish, Sacred Heart Church, was totally destroyed. When the storm was finally over, nine Melrose Parkers were killed. The tornado did not touch Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, school or the neighborhood within a four-block radius of the church – and many parishioners attributed this to the intercession of Our Lady herself.
Mrs. De Stefano died in 1920, and consequently the Feast Committee was organized by Father Franch in 1921 to manage the yearly carnival and Procession. The men on the Feast Committee began working early in winter – contracting with vendors and entertainers – to create a “grande celebrazione” for Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Now in its 90th year, the Feast Committee includes men whose fathers and grandfathers served on the Committee - and continue to be devoted to Our Lady.
During this time of heavy Italian immigration to Melrose Park, an important Italian women’s sodality was formed in the parish. In 1922, theMadri Cristiane(Christian Mothers) was established on St. Monica’s feast day (May 4).
The 1920s also was the beginning of another tradition. Since 1898, the Madonna was carried on a platform, adorned with an arch of flowers, and a satin embroidered canopy was carried behind her. As a boy in Cloz, Father Franch remembered processions that included patron saints carried in elaborate woodenbaldachini.In 1926 he commissioned an Italian woodcarver to reproduce an authenticbaldachino, which is still used to this day to carry the beloved statue.
Lithuanians had a strong presence in Melrose Park in the early decades of the 20th century, and in the 1910s and 1920s, Father Franch encouraged their involvement with the parish and annual Feast. Father Franch learned enough of the Lithuanian language to hear confessions, and for years, a visiting Lithuanian priest celebrated Mass on Sundays. Several Lithuanian societies and clubs were active during this time: The St. Anne Lithuanian Society (women) and St. John the Baptist Lithuanian Society (men) marched in the Procession each year
The decade of the 1920s began in Melrose Park with one of the worst tragedies the Village has ever experienced. On March 28, 1920, a tornado swept through the village, moving northeast from Main Street and 17th Avenue to Division Street and 11th Avenue. The tornado continued its northeast trajectory, causing damage in Chicago and Evanston before dissipating over Lake Michigan. In its path, it destroyed approximately 50 homes and damaged almost 100 more in Melrose Park. Our neighboring parish, Sacred Heart Church, was totally destroyed. When the storm was finally over, nine Melrose Parkers were killed. The tornado did not touch Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, school or the neighborhood within a four-block radius of the church – and many parishioners attributed this to the intercession of Our Lady herself. .
The Depression Years - 1930s
The Great Depression hit Melrose Park as hard as the rest of the country – and virtually every family experienced unemployment, hard times and uncertainty. Many took their troubles to the feet of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and during this time, many religious societies were established. Perhaps most notably was the establishment of theHoly Name Societyin 1930. For decades following, only members of the Holy Name Society were allowed to carry the statue during the Procession.
Another group organized during this period was theThird Order of Saint Francis, officially inaugurated on April 19, 1933. In May, 1936 a new organization of married women was inaugurated in the parish. TheOur Lady of the Sacred Heart Sodalitywas formed and was the English-speaking counterpart to theMadre Cristiani– whose meetings were conducted only in Italian. Both these sodalities continued until 1961, when they were combined to create theAltar and Rosary Sodality. The other important sodality that was inaugurated in the1930s was theWomen Catholic Order of Foresters.
The War – 1940s
Although during the early years of the War America and Italy were on opposing sides, there was never any question of loyalty among the Italians in Melrose Park. Young boys from Melrose Park volunteered in droves to liberate Europe from the Nazis. Young girls from town picked-up drills and rivet guns and worked long hours in the Buick factory that was converted to make airplane engines for the War effort. Many young men returned with stories of bombing their parents’ and grandparents’ villages in Italy. But they were Americans first, Italians second. On the home front, many prayed for the safety of their sons and for the end of hostilities that tore the world apart. Thousands marched behind the Virgin, and many told stories of aid obtained through the intercession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
The Golden Years – 1950s
The “baby boom” that followed the War was felt in Melrose Park, as it was everywhere else in the United States. Returning GIs fell in love, got married, had babies, and needed homes to raise their families. Melrose Park experienced the largest building boom in its history, as empty fields north of Division Street became filled with raised ranch homes, Georgian-style homes and “duplexes.” Later in the decade, the Village grew by almost a third with the addition of the Winston Park subdivision to the east.
In September 1951, Our Lady of Mount Carmel celebrated the opening of a new school, which was the first new building in the parish since the “old school” was completed in 1913. A beautiful, gothic-inspired school was designed by Chiaro and Chiaro Architects of Maywood and supervised by Father Franch, himself a trained stonemason. Parish records indicate Father Franch’s involvement in every aspect of the construction of new school – down to inspecting the type of wood and finish for the floors and the quality of the chrome used for faucets in the washrooms. The new building added 4 badly-needed classrooms on the second floor and a modern auditorium and kindergarten room on the first floor. Even today, almost 60 years later, the 1951 school building remains a remarkably beautiful and inspiring structure. The two school buildings accommodated 600 children, meeting the needs of an expanding Melrose Park.
The new school would be Father Franch’s last endeavor. He died on May 26, 1954 in Oak Park Hospital.
Father Salvatore De Vita, currently associate pastor, became Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s third pastor and was immediately embraced by the parish. He soon realized that the growing village posed a challenge to the 1908 church, which only accommodated about 350 persons. The building of a larger church was inevitable, and Father De Vita began to work toward the construction of a newer, (but traditional) larger church that would incorporate the statues, altars and iconography from the 1908 church, which was much beloved by parishioners. However, in 1958, tragedy struck the Our Lady of the Angels elementary school in Chicago: 92 children and three nuns died in a fire that shocked the nation and caused communities everywhere to evaluate the quality and safety of their school buildings. The Our Lady of the Angels and the Our Lady of Mount Carmel schools were both built in 1913 – and were virtually identical, including the same central staircase made of wood and open corridors. Father De Vita put his dreams of a new church on hold and instead pushed for the construction of a new, fireproof school to replace the 1913 building. Nothing was more important than protecting children, so the parish would have to live with a small church for just awhile longer.
Breaking with Tradition – The 1960s
In 1961 a new fireproof school was dedicated, adding 12 classrooms and “Carmel Hall,” which was a lunchroom complete with a commercial-type kitchen that could accommodate a myriad of parish events.
The Second Vatican Council was convened in 1962 by Pope John XXIII and concluded 3 years later in 1965 by his successor, Pope Paul VI. This was a period of change, confusion and even turmoil in the Church. Consequently, interest and participation in the Feast declined during this period, as the founding immigrant generation (1890s – 1930s) aged and began to die. Their children were first generation American, assimilated and perhaps anxious to disassociate themselves from their parents’ immigrant past. Furthermore, part of the confusion following the Council was perpetrated by progressive bishops and priests who were anxious to embrace “renewal” by de-emphasizing (and in some cases outright prohibiting) practices such as processions, novenas and devotion to saints.
Father De Vita left the parish in 1964, and Adam Torresan was installed as Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s fourth pastor. Father Torresan believed that the building of a new church could not be postponed any longer. Particularly, with the establishment of new liturgical norms imposed by the Second Vatican Council, Father Torresan was adamant that the 1908 church could neither be enlarged nor adapted to accommodate the new liturgy, and no money should be spent to do so. Almost immediately after his installation - and with the enthusiastic support of the Archdiocese of Chicago - he establishedOperation New Church, a capital campaign (complete with a newsletter entitledOur Lady of Mount Carmel Campaign News) that aimed to raise enough money to demolish the existing church and break ground for the new church by early 1966. Parishioners were asked to sign three-year pledges. Father Torresan and the Archdiocese of Chicago contracted architects Belli and Belli of Chicago, who were preeminent liturgical architects at the time, to design the new Church and attached rectory. Our Lady of Mount Carmel would be the first church built in the Archdiocese of Chicago following the Second Vatican Council, and the Archdiocese was anxious to develop a “prototype” that would serve as a model for future building projects. Early renderings of the new church indicate the placement of the Madonna over the Tabernacle; however, the placement of any image or statue of a saint over the Tabernacle (as the central focus in the church) was prohibited by the Archdiocese of Chicago in the years following the Second Vatican Council.
As a compromise it was decided that the Madonna would be placed in a chapel, in the rear of the church, on a shelf against the large stained-glass window.
Pledges were slow in coming, and the building project was delayed until early 1967. After New Year 1967, parishioners were invited to take statues and other mementos from the 1908 church, including the Tabernacle, communion rails, paintings and ornamentation from the altar. The pews were removed and set-up in the auditorium as a temporary church, and the Madonna was installed on the north end of the stage. The stained-glass windows – paid for with the pennies by Italian immigrants just sixty years before - were given to the wrecking company by Father Torresan, who in turn sold them to Marshall Field’s and were eventually used as props in their State Street store. Demolition began the first week of January 1967. Many parishioners watched with a profound sense of sadness as their beloved church – the church that Father Franch built - where they were baptized, received communion, confirmed, married and from where many buried their parents and grandparents, was knocked to the ground. The rectory and the 1914 school (closed since the new fireproof school opened in 1961) were also demolished to make way for the new church and rectory.
Ground was broken for the new church and rectory in February 1967, and the cornerstone was laid on September 24, 1967. By May 1968 the 900-seat church was ready and Dedication Day was set for June 9. His Eminence John Cardinal Cody led the ceremony that included the Knights of Columbus, Father De Vita and other living priests who had served the parish in the past. The church itself opened to mixed reviews from parishioners. Foremost amongst the complaints about the new church were that the Madonna was not visible in the main sanctuary.
In July 1969 the Feast celebrated its 75th anniversary. Otherwise downplayed, the anniversary included the introduction of new crowns for the statues that Father Torresan commissioned an Italian artist to design. The morning of the Feast, the Madonna was taken from the church without the baldachino for the first time since 1944, as the doorway of the new church could not accommodate its height. The new, flatter, open crowns were used during the procession for most of the 1970s; however, they were ultimately retired because they were not popular among many devotees who believed they too radically changed the appearances of the Madonna and Baby Jesus. The 50th anniversary crowns from 1944 were used for the Procession until 2009.
A New Generation 1970s – 1980s
By the late 1970s, the statue of the Madonna was rapidly deteriorating. The placement of the statue in the open air, against the stained glass window in the chapel with the hot western sun in the summer and the damp cold in the winter, proved to be ruinous to the Madonna’s hair and clothing. The decision was made to install a glass case with a solid back, protecting the statue from dust, sunlight and dampness, as it had been in the old church. In the 1980s, new gowns were purchased for the Madonna and Baby Jesus, and the statue continues to be lovingly cared-for by a group of dedicated women of the Society of the Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
The Second Century and Centennial – 1990s
The 1990s would certainly be a decade of celebration for Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Melrose Park – the 100th anniversary of the Feast. It was decided to recognize the centennial in 1993 instead of 1994, as 1993 marked the 100thoccasionof the Feast, versus just an anniversary. To mark this momentous event, the parish determined that a soaring, 70-foot bell tower would be a fitting tribute to the love that Our Lady has shown her children in Melrose Park for the past century. The bell tower was designed by Belli and Belli architects (who designed the 1967 church 25 years prior) and manufactured in stainless steel by the Verdin Company of Cincinnati. The three matched bronze bells were cast 97 years before and were previously used in a church in Cincinnati. On top of the bell tower sits an 8-foot bronze statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, cast by Herbert Maroder in the town of Ortisei (Balzano) Italy.
The statue arrived in October, 1992, and parishioners staged a procession with it, beginning at the original site of the parish on 24th street and ending at the site of the bell tower. Along the way, prayers were offered for various groups. One prayer was especially touching, as it remembered Emanuella De Stefano, whose vision brought us to where we are today, a century later:
“Repose of the soul of Emanuella De Stefano and all the Italian immigrants who, with their faith and determination, initiated this Feast in Melrose Park.”
The statue was hoisted atop the tower, and it was dedicated on May 30, 1993 with a memorial Mass celebrated by Bishop Thad Jakubowski.
The 1990s brought much change to the village and parish: immigrants from Mexico were fast becoming the dominant ethnic group in Melrose Park, and 3rd-generation Italian-Americans were making their homes in towns such as Addison, Bloomingdale and Naperville. The parish responded by adding Spanish-language Masses and incorporating Mexican devotions and sodalities into the procession. This decade also saw changes to the carnival. Since the early 1960s, the street carnival ran six nights, including the Sunday of the Feast. Beginning in 1990s, the street carnival began running from Thursday through Sunday, as it had earlier in the century.
A Tradition Reborn – The 2000s
If devotees needed reassurance that the Blessed Mother would never abandon those who come to Melrose Park to honor her, the first decade of this new millennium would prove to be Our Lady’s personal gift.
By 2001 the parish realized that with the immigrant generation being a fading memory, many traditions and devotions that sustained the Feast for over a century were in danger of being lost.
TheSociety of Our Lady of Mount Carmelwas established that year for, according to its mission statement: “…for the express purpose of maintaining the traditions and culture of the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (as it was originally presented by the founders and those who followed in devotion to La Madonna del Carmine).”
The Society (which includes both men and women) seeks to promote and reinforce spiritual devotion to the Blessed Mother under the title of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and promote the parish as a holy place for veneration.
Not long after the establishment of the Society, it became apparent that many devotees who came to the Feast each July were not from Melrose Park. Some were people who moved from the village, others may have had grandparents or other relatives who lived in Melrose Park, and many had no connection to the village except their love for Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Being the only operating Italian parish in the Archdiocese - and the only church that honored Our Lady of Mount Carmel with a procession – the Society determined that the parish should seek to obtain the designation of a “shrine.” This designation would ensure that the Blessed Mother would be honored under the title of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Melrose Parkin perpetuity. The Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel could never be closed, moved or renamed – as had been the fate of so many parishes in the Archdiocese. Furthermore, a shrine has no geographic boundaries and can promote itself nationwide.
With the enthusiastic support of Father Claudio Holzer (the parish’s recently-installed pastor), and Bishop Thomas Paprocki, the Episcopal Vicar of Vicariate IV, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church becameThe Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This was announced amidst tears and applause by Bishop Paprocki himself during the outdoor field Mass on the Sunday of the Feast, July 16, 2006. A formal inaugural Mass was held on November 10, 2006. Over 900 devotees packed the church on that rainy, frigid night to celebrate the beginning of yet another chapter in the long history of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Melrose Park.
With the establishment of the Shrine, and undoubtedly through the intercession of Our Lady herself, the Shrine has become home to some devotions unique to Italian-Americans that were displaced from other parishes. For example, Good Friday at the Shrine now includes theVenerdi di Santo Societythat observes the ancient Italian tradition of Christ’s funeral on Good Friday.
The decade closed with perhaps the greatest honor that can be bestowed on a Catholic shine. A Papal Coronation to the Blessed Mother is a rare privilege that only four other Marian images in the United States have been honored to receive. Shine parishioners and other devotees donated fifteen pounds of gold, and jeweler Gino Blando created new crowns built on the foundation of the 1969 Diamond Jubilee crowns that had been previously retired. Father Holzer and a small delegation from the Shrine traveled to Rome in May to have the crowns personally blessed by Pope Benedict XVI.
Sunday, June 28, 2009 was the Coronation Mass. On a day of picture-perfect weather, the Madonna was carried from her Shrine without crowns for the first time since 1969. And for the first time ever, women of the Shrine served as statue-bearers. After a short procession, the Madonna was brought back to the Shrine for the Solemn Mass of Incoronation, celebrated in Latin by Bishop Thomas Paprocki and Bishop Joseph Perry and carried on live, international television by EWTN Catholic Network.
In closing, it is altogether appropriate to invoke the prayer of Father Benjamin Franch at the dedication of the church he built in 1908:
“May the Holy Mary of Carmel protect and give repose in this church to all the people of all this colony of Chicago together with the humble pastor”
Father Franch and Emanuella De Stefano
An unlikely duo was responsible for what is now the preeminent Italian parish and Shine in the Archdiocese: Mrs. Emanuella De Stefano and Father Benjamin Franch.
Beniamino Franch, the son of Donato and Maddalena, was born in Cloz, Provincia Trento, on September 28, 1871. He had become a Scalabrinian at 30, after a hard youth spent taking care of his eight brothers and sisters – which he had to do because of his mother’s premature death. When Bemiamino was 18, he went to Vienna to serve in the military. At age 32 Beniamino Franch was ordained a priest in December 1903, and he came to the United States in February 1904. His first assignment was at Sacred Heart Parish in Utica, New York, and then he moved to Santa Maria Incoronata in Chicago.
In 1905, Father Franch was invited by Archbishop James Quigley of Chicago to serve the growing Italian population in the small village of Melrose Park, just 12 miles from downtown Chicago. At first, Father Franch was greeted suspiciously by the congregation of mostly southern Italians, who referred to him as “Austriaco,” or “the man from Austria.” Father Franch faced further conflict when he sought to move the small chapel to another location on land that he had acquired for the parish. However, Father Franch soon gained the trust from the congregation and built a beautiful new church at a cost of $12,000 and a rectory at the cost of $4,000. He personally guaranteed the interest on the loans.
Over the years Father Franch presided over a rapidly-growing parish: he added a parochial school and convent (1913), an addition to the school (1950) and an addition to the convent (1952).
In 1927, Father Franch was elected Regional Superior of the West of the Scalabrinian Order, a position he held until 1946. Father Franch passed-away on May 26, 1954 at the age of 83. He served as pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel for 49 years.
Little is know of Emanuella De Stefano, other than she was born in Laurenzana, Provincia Potenza and immigrated to the United States circa 1880. Mrs. De Stefano lived in Chicago but owned farmland at what is now North and 25th Avenues in Melrose Park.
In 1891, Emanuella De Stefano and Melrose Park resident Mary Dunnebecke sought to bring a Catholic presence to the small outpost of Melrose Park. Their efforts resulted in what became Sacred Heart Parish in 1893. In 1894, Mrs. De Stefano’s husband became gravely ill. Like most immigrants from Provincia Potenza, Emanuella prayed to Our Lady of Mount Carmel for his recovery. In gratitude for this remarkable favor, Emanuella contributed her own money and donations from her neighbors to commission Neapolitan artist Rafelle della Campa to create a replica of the famous statue of the Madonna that had been venerated in Laurenzana for centuries. The statue arrived in 1894, and the first Feast was held on the De Stefano farm in 1894.
Mrs. De Stefano and Father Franch – although sometimes at odds with one another – worked together to build the Feast into a trulyGrande Celebrazioneuntil Mrs. De Stefano’s death in 1920. Father Franch formed the Feast Committee in 1921 to oversee the Feast, which by then had grown considerably. The Feast Committee manages the carnival and Procession to this day.
North and South: Cloz and Laurenzana
Emanuella De Stefano and Father Benjamin Franch were from an Italy that resembles very little of what Italy is today. Both were born near the time of the creation of the Italian Republic in 1861, which unified the Italian peninsula. Prior to the unification, Italy was a collection of numerous kingdoms and city-states with centuries of conflict between them. Nevertheless, Emanuella and Beniamino would have been certainly raised with pre-Unification attitudes, believing they had little more in common with each other than the Italian language and their shared Catholicism. These attitudes carried to the New World, well into the 20th century. Many Italian parishes were identified by the “old world” province or city that was the ancestral homes of majority of their parishioners. Certain churches were “Sicilian,” others were “Neapolitan,” “Trentini,” etc., often resulting in feelings of exclusion and even conflict.
As if the Blessed Mother herself intervened, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Melrose Park was – as evidenced by the collaboration between Father Franch (a northern Italian priest) and Mrs. De Stefano (a southern Italian businesswoman) – a “democratic” parish. Melrose Park was home to immigrants from up-and-down the Italian peninsula, and all were welcomed. The small Lithuanian community in Melrose Park was equally embraced: Father Franch learned enough Lithuanian to conduct confessions and celebrate Mass, and two Lithuanian sodalities were formed to march in the Procession.
Under the mantle of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, all of her immigrant children in Melrose Park found a spiritual home.
50th Anniversary of the Feast – 1944
On morning of July 16, 1944, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel celebrated its 50th anniversary. At 10:00 in the morning, the Madonna was brought outside of the church without her crowns – for the first time ever. She was placed not on the baldachino but on a special float and escorted to an altar that was constructed west of 25th Avenue between Augusta and Cortez. A crowd of 20,000 excited devotees assembled to participate in a Papal High Mass celebrated by Father Franch, Father Pigato of Our Lady of Pompeii and Father Joseph Bernardi, pastor of Santa Maria Addolorata. This was the first field Mass celebrated for the Feast.
The façade of the church was decorated with a dramatic Roman arch and included 3,500 colored bulbs that illuminated a large oil painting of Our Lady that was imbedded in the arch.
Following the Mass, the Procession wound through the streets of Melrose Park; however the crowds were much heavier than they had ever been in the past. America was at war, and many men and women marched – praying for the safe return of their boys and for their relatives in Italy. Mrs. Ann Maria Prignano had the singular honor of leading the Procession: she was the only living person who participated in the first Feast – on Mrs. De Stefano’s farm 50 years before.
When the statue returned to the field altar at approximately 4:00 p.m., His Excellency, the most Reverend Sidney M. Metzger, Bishop of El Paso, Texas represented Archbishop Stritch. The Coronation Court presented the crowns to the bishop. The young ladies of the Court consisted of Mary Zito, Nicolina LaSpisa and Mildred Sommesi. The Infant Jesus Crown Bearer was Dolores Cammarata, attened by Mary Frances Bronge and Antonetta Zanoni.
This proud, emotional and historic day concluded with an elaborate fireworks display. This was an event that will live in the hearts and minds of those present for the rest of their lives.
Bands, Fireworks, Street Lighting and the Carnival
Italian Processions all over Italy include bands, elaborate street lighting and fireworks to honor patron saints. This custom became part of the tradition of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at least since 1904, when theChicago Tribunenoted that “…the Procession at the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Melrose Park was accompanied by no less than eight individual bands.” Unfortunately, none are specifically identified.
For a short period of time around the early 1940s, processional music was supplemented by a group of Melrose Park residents who formed a local ensemble of about six to ten self-taught musicians. This hometown band’s appearance was brief, and it soon vanished from the scene.
Caliendo’s Banda Napoletana, established by Maestro Martin Caliendo, a relative of the great Maestro Strocchia and equipped with the repertoire and composed of many veteran musicians from the Strocchia Band, began its long and affectionate association with the Feast in 1974. Since then, the Procession at the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel has been distinguished as one of the few surviving Italian religious feasts in the United States to feature two separate and full Italian-style bands with the Caliendo Band and the Guggino Band-decended Sicilian Band of Chicago.
The spectacular brilliance of the firework displays, which once concluded the final evening of the Feast, was always augmented with music provided by the bands. As the bombs and rockets blazed a pyrotechnic rainbow of streaming light and colors across the sky, the musicians would launch a stream of melodies equal in fiery color, blending sight and sound into a single, resplendent sensation.
Food has been a part of the Feast celebration from the very beginning. In 1894 and for several years following, the Feast included the Procession and a picnic for the few Italian families who participated. As the Feast drew more and more devotees from Chicago and other neighboring communities, local families began preparing and selling Italian food for the famished travelers who came from other cities to venerate Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Melrose Park. Early home movies from the 1910s and 1920s show women rolling pasta dough and serving pasta and “gravy” to hungry marchers. In the 1930s, the Feast incorporated more elements typical of local carnivals, with games, rides and activities for children.
By circa 1960, the carnival was expanded to six nights, running from Tuesday to Sunday. During this time – and into the 1970s – the carnival grew exponentially, spreading across several blocks around the parish complex. By the late 1980s and into the 1990s, the parish and Feast Committee determined that the Feast should be celebrated as primarily a religious festival instead of a neighborhood carnival. Beginning in the 1990s, the Feast Committee worked to return the Feast to its religious and ethnic roots.
Now the carnival focuses on Italian food sold by local families – as it was 60 years before – and Italian-themed entertainment, family-friendly games and rides for children. This “new-old” celebration has been enormously successful, reinvigorating the carnival and attracting families and religious pilgrims alike who attend the nine-day novena with which the carnival coincides.
Beginning in the 1930s, Mrs. Carmella DiMarco Benedeito brought a beautiful custom to the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel that has had a deep and lasting effect on Our Lady’s Procession. As a child she had seen candlehouses in Processions in her native town in Italy, and in thanksgiving for an answered prayer, Mrs. Benedeito built her first candlehouse. People would make a “vow” to a patron saint, whose image is often prominently included on the top of the candlehouse. The candles are then sold to other devotees and lighted in church – and any monies collected are donated to the church. In Italy, women and men would carry these candlehouses on their heads. In modern times, however, candlehouses are carried using poles by four-to-six persons.
The Branda Family candlehouse is perhaps the longest-surviving candlehouse in the Procession – beginning in the late 1930s – and continues today.