“We want to welcome everyone home”

BRIDGEPORT—Italian flags flew alongside American flags at the entrance to St. Margaret Shrine in Bridgeport’s North End last weekend as the parish welcomed thousands to their annual Feast of St. Anthony. While this three-day event, now in its 44th year, serves as a fundraiser and community celebration, festival coordinators also see it as an opportunity “to encourage people to come back to the Lord.”

The highlight of the weekend occurred Sunday morning as Bishop Frank Caggiano celebrated a special outdoor Mass in honor of St. Anthony, a day that coincided with both the feast of Corpus Christi and Father’s Day. Despite the gusty winds, brilliant sunshine shone down on parishioners and guests who filled hundreds of folding chairs and gathered on the grounds of the Shrine. Bishop Caggiano opened his homily with a blessing on all fathers, remembering stories of his own father who, he said, always had to have bread on the table. “I wondered why,” the Bishop added, “when there was always pasta too.” Speaking in Italian, he recalled his father’s answer, translated to “where there is bread, there is life.”

“We must be mindful of our sisters and brothers throughout the world who do not have bread,” he reminded those in attendance. “You and I are here to be nourished and to hear the Word that is the bread of life, to thank the Father, who is father of us all.”

To commemorate the work of St. Anthony, whose preaching converted thousands in Northern Italy and who consistently shared bread with those he met, the Bishop blessed dozens of small loaves which were distributed after Mass. “You and I will take one home, break it and share it with everyone with whom you will eat. Give thanks to Him for this antipasto of Heaven,” he said.

Following Mass, a procession in honor of St. Anthony made its way from the Shrine onto the neighborhood streets and back, at which time the festival of food, carnival rides, and music began. Lines formed outside the tents with volunteers selling porchetta grinders, sausage and peppers, and pizza fritta. Micalizzi’s Italian Ice and Angela Mia Bakery offered more cultural favorites.

Longtime volunteer John Cervone called the festival a labor of love. “It’s a lot of work, but we love doing this. Whatever is needed, we do it together,” he said, a testament to the sense of community at St. Margaret.

“There is so much excitement in the air, so much love and devotion,” said Lucia Palmieri, St. Margaret’s cantor, music director, and grief minister who also coordinates the outdoor Masses. “This is our story, and this is our outreach.”

Photos by Patrick Clark

Palmieri said the festival and outdoor Mass attract thousands of people from both the Bridgeport area and from out of state, many of whom do not attend church regularly. “We minister to them. We must be present for them at this Mass,” she said. “Maybe they will be called to attend again as they see us before Jesus. This is our gift to them.”

That gift includes priests who are present on the grounds throughout the weekend, music by the Italian choir, and even the opportunity for confessions during the carnival. “We’re encouraging people to come back to the Lord,” she added. “This is our job – to talk with them and expose them to our Italian and Catholic culture.”

Built by men and women whose sons were serving in World War II, St. Margaret Shrine was dedicated in September of 1942 and is now the site of the last Italian festival in Bridgeport, according to Maurizio Viselli, the chair of the St. Anthony Mass. “This is an exciting opportunity for people to experience the Shrine,” said Viselli, who grew up in the parish, “and St. Anthony naturally draws a crowd as he is a national saint.”

Whether they were drawn in by the outdoor Mass, the authentic Italian food, or the carnival rides and music, Palmieri hopes that this festival brings people back. “We are 10,000 strong!” she said. “And we want to welcome you home.”

By Emily Clark