By Dyann Nashton
Sun contributing writer
UTICA – The mist couldn’t dampen the scent of grilled meats and peppers Sunday nor could it dampen the spirits of thousands who came to celebrate the Feast of Ss. Cosmas and Damian. Dozens of buses lined nearby Bleecker Street waiting to transport pilgrims who came to honor the twin saints on the 100th anniversary of the festival at St. Anthony and Agnes Parish.
In a historically Italian neighborhood of East Utica, accordion music played on the streets as Mass was said simultaneously in Italian in an outdoor space and in English inside the church.
Following Mass, a procession with police escort wove its way through the neighborhood and back again to the church. Utica’s Red Band played as well as a special Italian-American band from Lawrence, Mass., brought in this year for the anniversary.
Among those in the procession was Rocco Nardi, of Toronto, who helped pin money to the ribbons attached to the statue of St. Damian.
“It is a tradition,” he said as he attached Canadian and American bills, “It’s to help support the Church.” He explained that the statue of St. Damian wears a green cloak while St. Damian is shown in red.
Catherine Purtruelli, also of Toronto, said, “It’s special today. It’s the 100-year anniversary. You see all these people? People come for devotion. The pilgrims come from all over. It’s beautiful.”
Another Canadian, Joe Arrigo said he experienced the healing powers of the sainted twins who were said to be skilled physicians at the end of the second century. He said, “The night before my back and legs hurt me so bad. But as soon as I got here, I feel like a million dollars!”
For Rose Romano, the healing she attributes to the saints began long ago and she has made the pilgrimage annually from her home in Addison, Ill. for 15 years.
“Someone introduced me to Ss. Cosmas and Damian 30 years ago. I thought they were just for the Italians,” she said. When she experienced serious health issues 20 years ago, she decided to pray to them.
She said although she did recover, shortly after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. “I prayed and prayed,” she said, “and I said if I get well I will come to the festival.” Today, there is only a slight sign of facial paralysis from the tumor and Romano remains devoted to these martyrs. She said she sends flowers to the parish for the altar each year as part of her devotion.
“I don’t know why so many keep coming,” said one organizer, John Aliasso. “I guess there are miracles that we don’t always hear about.”
Aliasso said he has been involved in the festival for 40 years. He said there were an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 visitors to the two-day festival that is always held on the weekend of the last Sunday in September. “This is by far the biggest religious festival in Central New York,” he said.
Enormous tents kept attendants dry while they picnicked on food brought to or purchased from the festival. There was no absence of wine on many of the tables and the songs of the Italian language filled the air.
Cuisine is an integral part of the weekend festivities. Aliasso was still busy Monday with the twelve cash registers used for the event’s food transactions. Selections included eggplant parmesan, pasta fagioli, pizza fritte and specialty cheeses. “Probably sausage sandwiches are the biggest seller,” he noted.
Coordinators have tried to maintain the spirit of generosity and hospitality of the celebration.“The people that come here spend a lot of money just to get here and for hotels. We try to make it worth their while by keeping it as inexpensive as we can,” Alaisso said.