Amid the swirl of cigars and the quaver of an Italian baritone, Mary Lou Papa had just pasted a dollar bill to the statue of St. Anthony when she looked up at the sky with a laugh.
“You hear me, Dad?”
After 100 years, the North End tradition of St. Anthony’s Feast drew dense crowds into the narrow streets of this Italian neighborhood, where, despite many changes over the years, it’s still all in the family.
St. Anthony’s Feast began in 1919, and this year it commemorates a “century of faith, family, community, and tradition,” organizers said in a statement.
Organizers say Boston’s feast “has become the largest Italian religious festival in New England.” It was named the “feast of all feasts” by National Geographic Magazine, organizers say.
The Italian street fair kicked off Thursday evening with the procession of Santa Lucia and ends Sunday with the grand procession honoring St. Anthony, organizers said.
As she stood before the shrine on Endicott Street, Papa said the story of her yearly visits to saints festivals began with her father in 1922, when he ate a bad clam.
According to Papa’s grandmother, he survived thanks to a prayer said at a festival devoted to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and the family always went to saints’ festivals thereafter.
Now, Papa, 76, comes up from Florida to celebrate St. Anthony’s Feast with two former colleagues from the Catholic school where she taught years ago.
“Oh come on, you cheapos,” she told them as she passed out dollar bills to adorn the shrine.
Family stories were everywhere Saturday.
Billy Venezia, 78, has been going to the festival his entire life, and he could not walk a block Saturday without being stopped by people who knew him.
Venezia obliged a woman by giving her father, who knew Venezia from years ago, a phone call (“He should pick up, though he might be at church”); he stopped to talk to his grandson (“He’s a good kid”) and to ask who was doing the eucharist (“He’s good, he’s Italian” was the reply); he recommended restaurants and told jokes.
It all reminded him of growing up in the North End: “Getting a loaf of bread, it would take an hour, you would talk to so many people,” he said.
And on Saturday, all that was in the space of a block as he led a reporter by the elbow to Paulo DiGiovanni, 58, who helped organize the festival.
DiGiovanni explained that he grew up in Montefalcione, Italy, where the festival originally started. The families that brought the festival from Italy to Boston were all from that area, he said.
The feast is also being celebrated this weekend in Italy, with horses and a mile-long procession of barefooted parishioners flanking the statue, which is dressed in pure gold, he said.
But Boston’s is livelier and more relaxed, he said. Perhaps it’s just the spunkiness that comes with youth.
“They just celebrated 320 years recently there,” he said.