Mayor Sebastian Giuliano, just back from a 19-day trip to Middletown's sister city, Melilli, for Easter and the beginning of Feast of St. Sebastian, says Sicilians have a long tradition of putting on a tribute to their patron saint.
After all, “they have a little more experience than we do,” Giuliano says about those organizing the Italian feast, which has been celebrated since 1414 — that is, 597 years.
And he's looking forward to the 90th festival this weekend for the patron saint of his church, St. Sebastian on Washington Street.
“For the 90th time, visitors will come from all across the United States to Middletown to celebrate an event that is much a part of us as the Connecticut River, Main Street or Wesleyan University,” Giuliano writes in the 90th Feast Edition booklet.
And even though our festival is small in comparison to Sicily’s full week of celebration, it's two and a half days of food, culture, entertainment and amusement, drawing busloads from all over New England.
The culmination of Middletown’s event, which runs from Friday to Sunday, is the run of the faithful. “I Nuri is the name given to those who want to show devotion to St. Sebastian by running barefoot, dressed in white,” explains Sal Nesci, vice chair of this year’s feast committee.
On Sunday, 200 parishioners — men, women and children — each depart from the family graves in St. Sebastian’s Cemetery in Rockfall and the Italian Society on Court Street clad in white with red sashes, carrying white and red carnations and chanting loudly, “Primu Diu e Sammastianu!” (first God, then St. Sebastian).
It’s quite an emotional pageant.
The I Nuri, Nesci says, "literally storm the church … it’s a culmination of a year’s worth of devotion to your church as Italian-Americans; keeping sacred the tradition of St. Sebastian.”
There is nothing quite like the site of hundreds of the devoted, en masse, in a religious fervor, converging on this stately church.
“As close as you can get to that altar on Sunday,” Nesci says, “It’ll give a grown man goosebumps. To see people that you know, the friends that you work with, socialize with, parents of your childrens’ friends, rushing that statue, placing flowers and money on the statue, chanting to the saint, in tears, it brings tears to your eye whether you believe or not.”
Councilman Phil Pessina is helping organize an honor guard comprised of volunteer firefighters and police, which will be a part of the procession. They will line the church steps in anticipation of the I Nuri arrival, then join the revelers.
As a child, Gene Nocera, general chairperson and retired principal of Woodrow Wilson Middle School, recalls as a child when his father was chairman of the feast and led the procession. “We went up and down the street, the faithful said prayers to the saint and pinned money and donations on the statue. So the statue at the end of the day was covered with money and gifts.”
That spectacle left a huge impression on Nocera. “As a young boy, I never forgot the devotion that I saw —older people coming, who barely could walk, to the statute, being led to the statue, being held. They would not give up that money, they had to put that money on the statute themselves.”
Thirty-one-year I Nuri runner Santo Salafia, 76, explains. “It’s a promise which you maintain. For Santo Salafia, St. Sebastian is like a friend.”
The cultural aspect is celebrated with food. Served will be festival’s mouthwatering favorites — sausage-and-pepper grinders and fried dough, or pizza fritta, — as well as traditional Italian specialties from parishioner-owned restaurants like Illiano’s, South Side and Public markets, Lino’s, Vecchitos Italian ice, Mellili Café and Taste of Italy’s cannoli, stuffed schiacciata (flatbread filled with things like onions, zucchini, mushrooms and fontina), fried calamari, pasta primavera and Arancini (stuffed rice balls).
“It’s probably the quintessential Italian-American celebration that's not only an equal combination of culture but spiritual at the same time,” Nesci says.