More than a hundred years ago, a group of Italian immigrants arrived in what is now known as the Bunker Hill section of Dunmore, Lackawanna County.
From their small southern Italian town of Guardia dei Lombardi, located east of the city of Naples, they took with them their traditions, including a devotion to St. Rocco, whom they still honor every August with a procession and festival in Dunmore.
St. Rocco, the protector against deadly plagues, is considered the patron saint of Guardia dei Lombardi. Veneration to this saint dates back to 1656 when a deadly plague and drought swept through the Italian town, killing 1,110 of its 1,475 residents. Guardia’s first procession in honor of St. Rocco took place that year when the remaining townspeople prayed to him to bring rain and to end the aggressive plague.
By the time the Guardiese immigrants had arrived in Dunmore, the procession to St. Rocco had been an integral part of life in their Italian community for more than 250 years.
“When the immigrants settled in Bunker Hill, naturally they wanted to be among their own people,” says lifelong parishioner and Bunker Hill resident Carlo Pisa. “They also wanted to continue many of the same traditions here because it made them feel more at home in a different country.The pro-cession was one of them.”
In the early1900s,the Guardiese community in Dunmore had become so large that members decided to found their own church. About 40 families joined together and called themselves the Society for Congregation of St. Rocco’s Church. Unable to secure a bank loan, they traveled door-to-door within their com-munity to solicit funds to purchase a church building from a Presbyterian congregation in the neighborhood. The first mass at St. Rocco’s Church was held in October 1905, and the first procession in honor of St. Rocco took place the following August.
When St. Rocco’s became its own parish in 1922, the members added a festival to coincide with the procession. Parishioner Nick DeNaples, who was born in 1935, has helped with the festival since he was six years old. As a child, he was told how the first festivals were celebrated.
“If you went to festival in the 1920s, you wouldn’t have seen all of the stands like you do now because there was no money to do that,” he says. “Members prepared food at stoves in the church basement and carried it outside in bowls to sell there. The basic menu was sausage and peppers, hot dogs, pizza, beer, soda and wine.
“The celebration of the Feast of St. Rocco was first celebrated on a low-scale with this style of a picnic,” De Naples continues. “As the community and church became more prosperous, the festival grew into the large celebration it is today.”
The humble manner in which the Feast of St. Rocco was first celebrated extended to how the event was publicized.
“There was so much poverty in those early days that the church couldn’t afford to advertise in newspapers or billboards,” DeNaples says. “Members would attach a sound system to an old car and drive around the streets of Bunker Hill announcing that the St. Rocco’s picnic was coming. They would do this every night for about three to four weeks ahead of time so people would know about the festival. It was their way of life.”
The Feast of St. Rocco traditionally falls on August 16, and the festival and procession will take place the weekend prior to this date. The procession is always held on the Sunday of the three-day festival. Originally, statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and St. Michael the Archangel joined a statue of St. Rocco in the procession. Over the years, the statue of St. Michael the Archangel was removed from the procession, and then in 2008, following parish restructuring efforts throughout the Diocese of Scranton, a statue of St. Anthony was added to commemorate the linking of St. Rocco’s with St. Anthony of Padua Parish. In July last year, the two parishes were merged and are now known as SS. Anthony and Rocco Parish.
After leaving St. Rocco’s Church, the procession travels throughout the streets of BunkerHill. The statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, St. Rocco and St. Anthony are placed on beams carried by the men of the parish. A priest accompanying the procession blesses bystanders with a relic of St. Rocco. A band usually follows the procession.
The church community’s strong ties with Guardia dei Lombardi remain today. The procession in Dunmore mirrors the one still held each year in Guardia dei Lombardi. On the façade of St. Rocco’s Church, a cornerstone proclaims in Italian that the church was founded by Guardiese immigrants in 1905.
“All the common names in Guardia are names in Bunker Hill. Some of the spellings might have changed, but you can bet they are almost all Guardiese names in this neighborhood,” Pisa says. “If you would walk through the cemetery in Guardia and read the headstones, you’d think you’re in Bunker Hill. The tie is that strong.”
Perhaps what is even stronger is the generational bond that the festival and procession create in the parish family.
“The festival is always a big celebration and something to look forward to. People like it,” DeNaples says. “Bishop Timlin (bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Scranton) referred to St. Rocco’s as a small but vibrant parish that is very closely knit. He hit the nail on the head. That is why we’ve lasted to today. Even after the merger with St. Anthony’s, the parish remains family-oriented. Our parents set the pattern when they had us come as youngsters and help at the festival. We’re doing the same with our children and our grandchildren.
“The thing we have to remember is that it isn’t the place that makes the people, it is the people who make the place,” he continues. “Bunker Hill is just a place like any other place, but it is the people and their traditions that make it Bunker Hill.”