Great-Granddaughter of St. Sebastian Statue Creator Paints Scenes of Melilli

The exhibit by painter Donna Dubreuil Favreau, on view at Ursel's Web Gallery, explores her ancestral roots in Middletown's sister city.

Basilica San Sebastiano, Melilli, Sicily
Basilica San Sebastiano, Melilli, Sicily

Every May, the blessed statue of St. Sebastian is paraded on a flower-filled float down city streets, the culmination of a two-mile pilgrimage from the cemetery in Middlefield to the Renaissance Revival church on Washington Street in Middletown.

The passionate journey is made by barefoot parishioners of St. Sebastian Church here in Middletown, the sister city to the Italian city of Melilli, Sicily. 

Now, the great-granddaughter of artist who sculpted the marble statue that stands outside St. Sebastian Church, the painter Donna Dubreuil Favreau, has an exhibit at Ursel's Web Gallery and Frame Shop in Middletown, work inspired by her travels abroad to discover her ancestral roots.

Favreau is an award-winning oil painter who came to Middletown at age 6 and grew up on Hotchkiss Street near St. Mary of Czestowochowa Church, "smack in the middle of the Anninos and Marcheses," she says, graduated from the public schools and now lives in Westbrook.

Little did she know then how important it was that Sebastian G. Marchese, who moved to Ferry Street at age 33 in 1904 with his wife and three daughters, sculpted the statue that stands to the east of St. Sebastian Church. Then, she thought little of the parade stopping by their three-home family "compound," on Hotchkiss Street, Favreau jokes, every year. 

Marchese, one of the early residents of our city and a self-taught artist, was offered the position of official artist of Melilli but turned down the job to emigrate to Middletown. "They wanted to keep him in town," Favreau said. He eventually found work as a stonemason at Pierson and Co. in Cromwell.

It's funny to think about it now, Favreau said, but she always considered herself a little French-Canadian girl as her paternal family came from Montagne, Canada, where she lived until age 6. It wasn't until later in life when she began exploring her own genealogy that she became interested in her Italian side.

In April 2009, Favreau and her husband traveled abroad to her maternal great-grandfather's homeland. "I took a bunch of pictures and did three paintings from the trip. It seems like it just grew on me and now it has become an obsession," she said of painting from these photographs. "I may have to go back."

They flew in to Rome and traveled down the eastern coast, to Turin, Capri, and took a train ferry over to Messina, rented a car and visited Mt. Aetna, "it was behaving itself then," Favreau said. She was on a mission to find out why her great-grandfather left Melilli and came to the city in America. 

Favreau met a teacher Sebastiana Corvo LaBella who had written the preface to the book, "Arrivaderci Melilli, Hello Middletown" by James Annino, who knew all about her family. 

She learned about the Sicilians, skilled craftsmen and merchants who, through hard work and a strong sense of community, created a sister city to Melilli here in Connecticut in a neighborhood east of Main Street near the river.

When her great-grandfather died in his late 80s still living in his Hotchkiss Street neighborhood, Favreau said, the parade still visited around her childhood home in honor of him and his contribution to Middletown history. The visits began with Marchese could not longer participate due to his age.

The spectacle of parishioners clad in white with red sashes, carrying roses and chanting, "E Chiamamulu Paisanu! Primu Diu E Sammastianu!" which, translated to English means, "He's one of our own! First God and then St. Sebastian," began in the 1980s after Middletown was named Melilli's sister city, Favreau says.

"No one ever screamed or shouted in the church or streets back then, she said. My dad and I were in church when we first heard the Nuri in the 1980s. We were pretty shocked at the religious fervor!"   

Much like her great-grandfather, Favreau is primarily self-taught in the arts. She took classes with local artists to hone her painting skills and now belongs to the Art Guild of Middletown, Arts and Crafts Association/Gallery 53 of Meriden and is an elected member of the Clinton Art Society and joined of the Maple and Main Gallery in Chester in November.

Favreau has won a best in show at Wesleyan University's Zilkha Gallery on a pastel painting. She has sold paintings to private collections around the United States, England and Canada. She recently sold two oil monotypes to Baystate Hospital's new Heart Vascular Center in Springfield, Mass., and has a painting in the Permanent Collection of the Westbrook Public Library. 

As for the "Suddenly Sicilian" show, Favreau encourages anyone who's of Sicilian descent or a fan of the annual pageant to stop by for a look. "It's a nice, cheap way to travel to Italy without spending the airfare."

"Suddenly Sicilian," paintings of Melilli and Eastern Sicily by Favreau, is on view at the gallery at 140 Washington Street through the end of February and the eight paintings are for sale. Hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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