In the North End, tradition runs deep.
For Kenny Palazzolo it goes back four generations, to the 1930s when his great-grandfather left Sciacca, a fishermen’s town on the southwestern coast of Sicily, for Boston.
Tradition means the 41-year-old gives up two weeks of work every August to help run the Fisherman’s Feast, the storied event honoring the Madonna del Soccorso di Sciacca.
She is Sciacca’s patron, the woman the town’s fishermen pray to before venturing out to sea. This year marks the 103d time the feast has been held in Boston.
“As far back as my recollection goes, the Madonna was there,” he said, a gold charm of the Madonna around his neck. “It is in our blood. We do this out of love for her.”
So while there are fresh clams and Italian sausage and torrone desserts that lure tourists by the thousands, for the families with ties to Sciacca, this is a weekend to hand down old traditions to new generations.
For Warren Mustacchio, the feast is also a chance to remember the way the North End used to be, before rents rose and upscale restaurants moved in.
‘As far back as my recollection goes, the Madonna was there. It is in our blood.’
He was born and raised in the neighborhood, and for the last 30 years he has run a stand, selling beef braciola and other Italian delicacies.
Families that left for the suburbs return to the old neighborhood for the feast. Mustacchio’s North End home is full of visiting friends and relatives.
They gather on the streets of the North End to walk under the bright lights, the smell of sausage in the streets.
“It keeps our traditions alive,” he said outside his stand. “It is good to see them all back.”
Sal Diecidue watched his first feasts from the fire escape outside his family’s home on North Street.
From there, he would see the nearly 600-pound Madonna statue leave her shrine in the clubhouse of the Madonna del Soccorso Society of Boston, atop 14 men’s shoulders for a procession around the neighborhood.
The 58-year-old would also see the “Flight of the Angel,” the closing ceremony, in which a local girl dressed as an angel would fly across the street strapped to a harness.
“This is our Christmas,” he said.
Back in those days, before commercial fishing took over the industry, the men in the neighborhood would bring their fresh catch up from the harbor and cook in the street.
Those days are gone, and the club members are more likely to grill hot dogs and burgers outside the clubhouse than freshly caught fish.
But the heart of their traditions survive. They still pass on the story of the Madonna.
On Feb. 2, 1626, the people of Sciacca, suffering from the plague, gathered in front of the church of St. Augustine and prayed to Madonna to heal them. Just then, the story goes, the church doors opened and a scented breeze wafted out from the Madonna’s statue, healing the town.
“It is great we have the fourth-generation guys keeping this all alive,” Diecidue said, walking through the club, pointing at photos on the wall from years past.
There was the 1991 trip club members took to Sciacca. And the night they hosted visiting Italian sailors. There are also photos of friends and family.
Near the Madonna statute, on the main floor of the two-story brick clubhouse, hangs a special photo. In stark black and white, it shows the club’s founding fathers in 1910, the first year they celebrated the festival in Boston.
Near the center is Diecidue’s grandfather, Peter Marino. The fisherman came to the North End at the start of the 20th century, he said.
“It is our heritage; we won’t forget it. We can’t,” Diecidue said, choking up as he looked up at the man who brought his family to Boston.
“These guys had it tough. No pension, no sick leave, just an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.”
Sitting outside with some older club members, he took in the view and smiled as he saw Palazzolo and his 30-year-old cousin, Louis Strazzulo, president of the society, run around preparing for the feast — and beyond. The club members and their families are returning to Sciacca next year.
The next generation is indeed keeping the tradition alive.