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Marching Saints And Greasy Poles: Finding Faith At St. Peter's Fiesta

In the Greasy Pole contests, dozens of wildly costumed competitors try to be the first to step across the some 40-foot-long, grease-slathered pole to grab the flag off the end. (Greg Cook)

experiences

GLOUCESTER, Mass. — In 1926, a Gloucester fishing captain by the name of Salvatore Favazza commissioned a Charlestown sculptor to fashion a statue of St. Peter, the patron saint of Catholic fishermen. The statue would be the centerpiece of an annual St. Peter’s Fiesta, much like those in Favazza’s native Sicily, honoring and thanking the saint for his protection and support.

It began as a neighborhood festival in Gloucester’s waterfront Fort neighborhood (named for actual forts built there beginning around the time of the American Revolution), where Sicilian immigrants settled at the turn of the 20th century. Last weekend the community, lead by the descendents of the founding families, celebrated its 86th annual Fiesta. It’s grown into a city-wide celebration featuring parades of statues and paintings through the streets, rowing races, the blessing of the city’s commercial fishing fleet, Greasy Pole contests (pictured above), a Mass, a carnival, and nine evenings of prayer.

Throughout the weekend, you can hear the faithful still holler, “Me chi samiou, duté mute?” (“Shout it louder, are we all mute?”), and the response, “Viva San Pietro!”

Children honor the Madonna of the Annunciation during Sunday’s religious procession that winds around Gloucester’s downtown. (Greg Cook)

Children honor the Madonna of the Annunciation during Sunday’s religious procession that winds around Gloucester’s downtown. (Greg Cook)

A crowd fills Rogers Street on Friday evening to watch the opening procession of the statue of St. Peter from the St. Peter’s Club to the temporary outdoor altar on the waterfront in St. Peter’s Square. (Greg Cook)

A crowd fills Rogers Street on Friday evening to watch the opening procession of the statue of St. Peter from the St. Peter’s Club to the temporary outdoor altar on the waterfront in St. Peter’s Square. (Greg Cook)

Men carrying the Mother of Grace statue shout blessings on Prospect Street during Sunday’s procession. (Greg Cook)

Men carrying the Mother of Grace statue shout blessings on Prospect Street during Sunday’s procession. (Greg Cook)

The St. Peter statue is wrapped in donations as Sunday’s procession pauses for prayer in front of Our Lady of Good Voyage Church. (Greg Cook)

The St. Peter statue is wrapped in donations as Sunday’s procession pauses for prayer in front of Our Lady of Good Voyage Church. (Greg Cook)

Gus MacIntosh shouts blessings to the saints as Sunday’s procession concludes in front of the St. Peter’s Club. (Greg Cook)

Gus MacIntosh shouts blessings to the saints as Sunday’s procession concludes in front of the St. Peter’s Club. (Greg Cook)

Eight-time Greasy Pole-walking champ Peter Frontiero (in black shirt) leads costumed walkers in a prayer in his backyard before they head down to the waterfront to compete on Saturday evening. (Greg Cook)

Eight-time Greasy Pole-walking champ Peter Frontiero (in black shirt) leads costumed walkers in a prayer in his backyard before they head down to the waterfront to compete on Saturday evening. (Greg Cook)

A Greasy Pole walker, costumed in the Italian colors, attempts to cross the slippery pole.

A Greasy Pole walker, costumed in the Italian colors, attempts to cross the slippery pole. (Greg Cook)

Nick Avelis, who won the Greasy Pole contest during the Saturday competition in 2012, steps carefully to the end to win again yesterday. (Greg Cook)

Nick Avelis, who won the Greasy Pole contest during the Saturday competition in 2012, steps carefully to the end to win again yesterday. (Greg Cook)

Robyn McNair (left) and her sister Amy Clayton are known as the “Crazy Hat Ladies” for the elaborate headgear they make and wear to the Fiesta each year featuring miniature replicas of Fiesta landmarks from the altar and carnival to the greasy pole contest. “It’s really about the reactions from other people,” McNair says. “We spread happiness, and it’s free.” (Greg Cook)

Robyn McNair (left) and her sister Amy Clayton are known as the “Crazy Hat Ladies” for the elaborate headgear they make and wear to the Fiesta each year featuring miniature replicas of Fiesta landmarks from the altar and carnival to the greasy pole contest. “It’s really about the reactions from other people,” McNair says. “We spread happiness, and it’s free.” (Greg Cook)

Three years ago Robyn McNair (left) and her sister Amy Clayton (in matching shirt at right) began holding a mini, tribute reenactment of the St. Peter’s Fiesta during the festival weekend. McNair shouts blessings as her son Noah McNair (in black shirt) and nephew Jacob Belcher carry their replica St. Peter statue down Orchard Street. (Greg Cook)

Three years ago Robyn McNair (left) and her sister Amy Clayton (in matching shirt at right) began holding a mini, tribute reenactment of the St. Peter’s Fiesta during the festival weekend. McNair shouts blessings as her son Noah McNair (in black shirt) and nephew Jacob Belcher carry their replica St. Peter statue down Orchard Street. (Greg Cook)

Seine boat racers strain at their oars during Sunday’s men’s championship race. (Greg Cook)

Seine boat racers strain at their oars during Sunday’s men’s championship race. (Greg Cook)

The rowing team Savages celebrates its victory in the junior women’s seine boat championship on Friday evening. (Greg Cook)

The rowing team Savages celebrates its victory in the junior women’s seine boat championship on Friday evening. (Greg Cook)

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