Ethnic Traditions Draw Faithful to Festivals

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Overlooking the Smoky Hollow neighborhood, once an enclave of newly arrived Italian immigrants, is the parking lot of the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. And in that lot, musicians play tunes for four days that would be familiar to those who lived in the neighborhood a century ago.

“We kept it all-Italian, even with the music,” says Frank Frattaroli, president of the Mount Carmel Festival. “It’s because of our parishioners and the monsignor [Michael Cariglio]. … We’re an Italian parish and he’s insisted that if we’re going to do it, then this is the way it’s going to be.”

Churches and religious organizations organize many of the fairs and festivals held each summer in the Mahoning Valley. Most are fundraisers for these churches that double as an effort to preserve their traditions and heritages.

But another purpose has developed over the years, Frattaroli observes. The festivals serve as a venue for the community to bond. Since the festival began in 1998, most of the visitors to the four-day event aren’t members of the parish – or even Italian.

“You have these outlets because of churches. And the more of that you have, then hopefully, the more families come out,” he says. “It could solve a lot of issues within the community. If there’s something to do here this weekend and over there next weekend, we can all be more family-oriented. Without these festivals, there’s a heck of a void.”

Noting the Italian-American roots of his church and its parishioners, Frattaroli says the top priority is keeping the Mount Carmel Festival, which runs July 21 through 24, as authentically Italian as possible, from food to music to the Sunday mass.

“We get a lot of compliments about how this is really Italian,” he says. “If you want something else, go to the Canfield Fair. And let’s face it, there’s a pretty strong Italian population here.”

In Lowellville, Rocco Nolfi sees its Mt. Carmel Society’s annual festival, this year July 13 through 16, as a chance to carry on the traditions of his great-great-grandfather, an Italian immigrant who helped to start the festival. Now in its 121st year, many of the main events at the fair are the same coordinated by Pietro Prione, Nolfi’s ancestor.

“There’s a Madonna in our window that’s from Italy, brought over by my great-great-grandfather in the 1800s. They did the same thing we do on the feast day, July 16, and march the Madonna around town,” he says.

On the business side, the Mt. Carmel Society has worked to preserve some traditions. Since the early 1900s, Lowellville’s Mt. Carmel Festival has featured fireworks displays by Zambelli Fireworks, founded by Antonio Zambelli, who emigrated from Naples, Italy, in the 1890s. Among the vendors is DiRusso’s Sausage, started in Lowellville and now based in Youngtown – a mainstay of the festival since the company first set up a concession stand more than 50 years ago.

“The biggest thing is the history,” Nolfi says. “For 121 years we’ve been cranking this out. … We’re six generations in and still holding fast to the traditions started in the 1800s.”

A 40-minute drive north, at the St. Demetrios Community Center in Warren, a group of parishioners has been busy since May preparing Greek foods so they can serve authentic meals at the Warren Greek Festival, July 20 through 24. Along with Greek music, says the festival’s president Sam Magiassos, the food is a major draw of the five-day fair, now in its 49th year.

“I’d rather have the homemade stuff than store-bought food. You can taste a little bit of love in it,” Magiassos says. “These ladies really love it when people tell them that their cooking’s good. It’s a great thing to have.”

Most who work at the fair are Greek, Magiassos observes, but most who attend are not.

“Most of us Greeks are probably working at the festival,” he says with a laugh. “It’s something that everyone looks forward to, for the food and music. They can sit around, spend a little money and get some cheap entertainment.”

For the scores of churches throughout the area that put on festivals, a summer fair is a lifesaver.

At Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Youngstown, the festival is paying for improvements to the church, including a bell tower erected last year and landscaping around the basilica.

For the Mt. Carmel Society in Lowellville, the money collected from beer sales, parking and vendor deposits provides “an anchor throughout the year,” Nolfi says.

Magiassos adds that St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church holds other fundraisers over the course of the year, but the festival is the biggest.

“Our church couldn’t survive without this festival,” he says. “It seems like churches are getting less and less in donations from parishioners.”

While monetary support from churchgoers is ebbing, their support in the form of volunteerism is not. Almost every church festival relies on its members to staff the events, in which many of the organizers take part as well.

“We couldn’t do it without our volunteers. It is a big deal to have people who are willing to help the church,” Magiassos says.

There is, without a doubt, a strong sense of culture in the Mahoning Valley built by generations of immigrants who came here and built new lives. And it’s that spirit that the church festivals nurture and sustain.

“A lot of immigrants were discriminated against when they first came to places like Ellis Island. A lot of the festivals [the immigrants] started essentially said, ‘If you won’t let us celebrate our faith, then we’ll take it to the streets,’ ” Nolfi says. “Our ancestors came over and brought not just their work ethic, but their faith. Our festival isn’t just about fun, but also the faith.”

Frattaroli points to a woman he met at last year’s Mt. Carmel Festival in Youngstown. Her parents were a “strictly spaghetti-on-Sunday” family who went to services at the church.

“It was instilled in her and now she’s at the festival with her son from Columbus who couldn’t wait to get back,” he says. “Things like that are reason enough to keep it going.”

Pictured: Monsignor Michael Cariglio leads the Sunday mass every year at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Italian Festival. Since the festival started in 1998, he’s worked with organizers to make sure it has an authentic Italian flair, from the musical acts to the food vendors.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.