Trapped in a parking spot in front of a dry cleaner on Willow Street, a Hoboken hipster pleads his case on a cell phone. “You don’t understand, they are carrying a saint in the street, I can’t pull the car out.” To the uninformed Hobokenite this is just bad timing, if he left a few minutes earlier he could have avoided this traffic jam caused by a religious procession. For the people engrossed by the parade, this is their annual rite dating back more than 600 years — a custom that is much more important than some dry cleaning. This impasse between trendy and traditional ends with the Hoboken hipster having to wait and watch. He is now forced to try and “understand” why these people are carrying a statue through a busy city street.
According to lore, the feast of the Madonna of the Martyrs (La Madonna dei Martiri) commemorates the finding of a floating Glykophilousa icon in Molfettan waters by Crusaders returning from the Holy Land. A couple centuries later (in 1399 to be exact), Ladislaus the Magnanimous, the king of Naples, proclaimed that the miracle of the icon should be celebrated with feasts and merriment. 526 years after Ladislaus’ declaration, a group of Molfettesi immigrants reintroduced the ancient ritual to their new soil, the dock city of Hoboken. Jump ahead yet another 86 years and you have a scenario where some intense Mediterranean Catholicism confronts someone in front of a dry cleaner.
In short, this is a religious festival, but upon further examination, this practice is much more complex than just a simple feast day. The real story of “la festa” is really about the Molfettese people. “La Medonne” is almost as synonymous to Molfetta as the dialect spoken by its native sons and daughters. A unique combination of legend, tragedy, faith and language, blended together by a mix of characters that are as much affable as they are stubborn. Steadfast Molfettese immigrants brought the statue to Hoboken not only to symbolize old country beliefs but also as a representation of themselves in the new world. For the temporary birds of passage, or those who went back and forth to Italy, the feast was a sampling of home until they were able to get back. For many others who stayed in the States permanently, it was a fixture, an actual anchor for a group of wandering seafarers successful in finding a new home. That’s what it means to “understand” this tradition. That’s why we applaud when La Medonne exits the church.
All images are the sole property of Andrew de Gennaro (2011)