Soccer can't stop religious Racalmuto celebration

It was a testament to the faith of local Sicilians that Italy was playing England in a Euro Cup match, and about 300 of them still had a procession downtown to celebrate the Virgin Mary.

Hamilton tradition continues with tribute to the Madonna

Mike Agro, float director of the Comitato Festa di Maria SS. Del Monte, prepares the Madonna statue for a parade through downtown Hamilton. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

It was a testament to the faith of local Sicilians that Italy was playing England in a Euro Cup match, and about 300 of them still had a procession downtown to celebrate the Virgin Mary.

The crowd was celebrating an event from Racalmuto, a community of about 9,000 in Sicily where a special statue of the Madonna landed in 1503.

The procession was the highlight of the three-day festival of Maria SS. Del Monte organized by Our Lady of All Souls Church near the corner of Barton West and James North. It culminates in fireworks at Bayfront Park at 10 p.m. tonight.

Organizers expected attendance to be down a little because of the soccer game, which Italy eventually won 4-2.

"We have a lot of odds against us today," said Luigi Agro, who assisted his dad Mike with the float pulled around downtown Hamilton with a statue of Mary. "There's the soccer game."

The parade heads through downtown Hamilton. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Lillo Puma, one of the first organizers when the current incarnation of the local celebration started in 1988, also acknowledged the scheduling conflict.

"Today, I don't expect too many," he said. "England and Italy are playing."

Still, crowds of Hamiltonians with Racalmuto ties came out for the procession. Hamilton is a hub for Racalmuto immigrants. Some 24,000 Hamiltonians are either from Racalmuto or related to someone who is.

It's a tie that has spanned generations. Vincenzo Mule's grandfather, Salvatore, immigrated here in 1910 and worked at a quarry in Dundas. Eventually he moved back to Racalmuto to start a quarry there.

The immigrants came to Hamilton to get jobs, many in the steel industry. Soon their friends moved here, and one by one, the population grew, Mule said.

Racalmuto is a beautiful town of agriculture, sulfur mines and "warm people," Mule said. The whole town gets involved in the festival of Maria SS. Del Monte, a sacred tradition that they recreate as closely as possible in Hamilton.

The Hamilton festival "brings a lot of emotions from home," said Maria Billone, who moved to Hamilton when she was 16.

The procession included a float with a statue of the Madonna, the Italian-Canadian Festival Band and a traditional cilio, which carries the homemade flags of families saying special prayers to the Virgin Mary.

The festival is held in collaboration with the Fratellanza Racalmutese Club. It included a candlelight procession, entertainment at Bayfront Park and a Sunday morning mass.