What is The Feast of the Assumption?
Observance of The Feast of the Assumption on August 15th each year is a Catholic tradition celebrated by Holy Rosary Church in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood beginning in 1898. The event is casually known as “The Feast,” which leads to confusion for those who are unclear that the word “feast” has a religious connotation. In Catholicism, “feast” refers to an annual religious celebration, usually the day on which a saint is honored. Because a large festival with lots of food is a part of The Feast of the Assumption celebration, the meaning is sometimes taken literally to mean it is the time to “feast” or eat.
The Feast of the Assumption is the commemoration of the assumption of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, into heaven, body and soul. This is an important dogma of the Catholic faith. While the secular celebration that includes food, amusements, entertainment, and socializing draws many people to the Little Italy neighborhood, Holy Rosary Church works to emphasize the religious aspects and rituals of the event.
The religious rites of The Feast of the Assumption include a solemn mass celebrated on the morning of August 15th, followed by a three-hour procession throughout the streets of Little Italy. A statue of the Virgin Mary placed atop a trailer adorned with flowers and religious banners leads the procession. Spectators along the procession route will often place offerings near the statue. Following the statue is the pastor of Holy Rosary Church reciting prayers. A large crowd walks along with the procession, including the Italian Band of Cleveland playing music, people reciting the rosary, some dressed in regional Italian costume, and sometimes children who recently made their First Communion.
During each evening of The Feast, the rosary is recited at the shrine to Our Lady of the Assumption. On the final day of the festival, a candlelight procession through the streets is held in honor of Mary and concludes with a short prayer service.
Origin of The Feast of the Assumption in Cleveland’s Little Italy
Italian immigrants began settling in the area centered around Mayfield and Murray Hill Roads, which later became known as Little Italy, in the 1880s. Many came from towns in and around the province of Campobasso, Italy, with the most numerous coming from Ripalimosani, Italy. They eventually created the Ripalimosani Social Union, once the biggest Italian society in Cleveland, and are credited with initiating the first neighborhood-wide celebration of The Feast of the Assumption in Little Italy in 1898.
August 15th is an important day in all of Italy and it is called Ferragosto. But it is a particularly meaningful day for the Ripesi (people from Ripalimosani) and has been for centuries. The central church in Ripalimosani is Chiesi di Santa Maria Assunta (Church of the Assumption,) which was founded in the 14th century. Besides commemorating the Feast of the Assumption with a mass and the typical Catholic rites, the town’s celebrations begin a few days prior to the 15th and include several processions to and from the church and a horse race with a huge festival.
Little Italy’s early Feast celebrations primarily involved those living in the neighborhood. Several years later, Italians from nearby neighborhoods and cities also began attending the Feast, increasing its numbers, vendors, and the length of the celebration. It was quite the spectacle and the newspaper reporters of the day were taken by not only the large religious procession, but the happy crowds, smells of good food, and the amazing fireworks. Non-Italian Feast-goers grew in numbers over the years, too, and The Feast has become one of the top summertime events for Clevelanders of all nationalities and backgrounds.
As most immigrants do, the Ripesi brought the customs of their homeland to their new city. Observing The Feast of the Assumption provided a way for them to maintain the connection with and perpetuate parts of their culture as the process of Americanization began to erode some of it away. It also provided a means to transport that culture through succeeding generations, and it has worked. The Feast is still going strong in the same neighborhood built by the immigrants 122 years later.