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Italian feast in North End features relic of saint

Tourists and residents walked along Hanover Street in Boston’s North End Friday during the St. Agrippina di Mineo festival.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Tourists and residents walked along Hanover Street in Boston’s North End Friday during the St. Agrippina di Mineo festival.

Crowds flooding the North End this weekend for the annual feast honoring St. Agrippina di Mineo will be able to savor the elaborate ceremony, pageantry — and the usual assortment of pizza and mouth-watering cannoli.

But this year, the 100th anniversary of the city’s inaugural feast honoring the martyred saint, organizers say attendees will get a rare opportunity: a chance to view a relic attributed to her.

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In honor of the milestone, Sicilian officials have brought to Boston a piece of bone from one of Agrippina’s joints. The relic, enclosed in a glass case, will be displayed during an eight-hour parade Sunday.

“It’s a very nice thing,” said Warren Mustacchio, treasurer and chairman for this year’s festival. “It’s got all this silver around, and it’s in the middle, almost like a flower.”

On Friday, smoke filled the vendor stalls lining Hanover Street, as sausages and skewers of kebabs sizzled in the summer heat on the second day of the feast. The smoky scent blended with the sweet aroma of fried dough, attracting tourists and residents to the North End.

“It just gives you a chance to explore the cultural heritage of the North End: the architecture, the food, and the people,” said Jay Snider, 44, who was visiting from Toronto with Owen, his 7-year-old son. “This actually feels a lot like Europe.”

The four-day feast is one of about dozen street festivals that take place in the North End annually, but event organizers expect larger-than-usual crowds and special guests this weekend as followers mark the anniversary, a banner event on the neighborhood’s calendar.

“Even though the demographics changed significantly, there’s really a connection to what the past of the neighborhood was,” said state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a lifelong resident of the North End. “They see it, and they’re intrigued. And they walk in and maybe they learn a lot about the people who grew up here.”

The blond princess Agrippina was allegedly tortured to death by the Roman Emperor Valerian in 256 A.D. after refusing his courtship, saying she was saving herself for God. Following her death, her body was taken from Rome to Mineo, Sicily, by three devout women, according to tradition. She was said to protect against evil spirits and diseases like leprosy.

Many thousands are expected to attend the festival throughout the weekend, according to organizers. Other relics of the saint’s, including a hand and a finger, remain in Sicily according to event cochairman Michael Sorrentino.

On Sunday, a procession will march through the neighborhood for several hours bearing a nearly century-old, 2,000-pound statue of Agrippina through the narrow streets. Mayor Martin J. Walsh was in attendance Thursday when a similar ritual took place.

“It took 20 guys to carry her,” Sorrentino said. “She barely comes an inch off the ground.”

Longtime residents said the festival mixes old traditions with a blend of neighborhood and family-friendly activities.

John Cammarata, 75, who was brought up in the neighborhood, remembered a time when the fare was largely free: Volunteers would pace through the neighborhood holding out a large sheet, as North End residents dropped coins and dollar bills below from their apartment windows. The donations paid for the pizza, watermelon, and other food in those days.

“It just brings back memories when you were a kid,” he said. “I knew everybody, and everybody shared. It was beautiful. It was from the heart.”

Visitors marveled at the variety of food offered, including pizza, sausages, oysters, and Italian pastries. To some fanfare, one vendor offered a a non-traditional dish: chocolate-covered bacon.

“You got the salt of the bacon, you’ve got the sweetness of the chocolate. Put it together and what do you get that’s better than that?” vendor Buddy Onessimo said.

Michlewitz, the state representative who grew up in the neighborhood, said the essence of its culture could be captured in the four-day festival.

“This is part of what life is like growing up in the North End,” he said. “Eating fried dough and playing with water guns.”

North End resident Anette Mosson, 76, said she posts a lawn chair outside her Battery Street apartment every year during the festival. She drinks coffee and eats homemade Italian anisette cookies as she soaks in the energy of her neighborhood.

“It’s just a joyous place,” she said. “You know what I mean — happy.”

Faiz Siddiqui can be reached at faiz.siddiqui@globe.com.
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