The Italian Carroll Gardens community in South Brooklyn is one of the few left in New York that holds onto its past, begrudgingly, and perhaps fleetingly, against the vicious eraser of chain stores, extreme wealth, and sameness that has come to define swaths of this city. What the community has lost in terms of businesses and population it has guarded in tradition. This past Sunday was a sacred one in the neighborhood, as the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows took place for the 63rd consecutive year.
The Feast is organized by the Molesi community in Carroll Gardens. People from Mola di Bari, a tiny fishing village of 2,500 people on the Adriatic Sea in Southern Italy, began slowly arriving in the neighborhood in the 1930s, but thousands came after World War II once fishing jobs dried up in their hometown. There was already an established Italian community going back to the late 1800s, although mostly Sicilian and Neapolitan. By the mid-1960s there were more emigres from Mola di Bari in Carroll Gardens than in the Italian village. In 1960, 14 teenagers opened the Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Social Club on the corner of Court Street and Fourth Place; its doors are still open, that is if you are Molesi.
In search of prosperity here, the arrivals from Mola brought with them the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. As Lisa M. Collins of the South Brooklyn Post recently wrote in a must-read feature about the community:
[W]hen the people of Mola di Bari came to Carroll Gardens, they brought with them a sacred tradition from their hometown. In 1948, an exact replica of the town idol, which stands in the town square, the Maria Santissima Addolorata, named ‘Our Lady of Sorrows,’ and wearing an elaborate medieval dress, was brought over on the boat.
For the past 62 years, twice a year, the Italian Carroll Gardens community, lead by the local Molesi leaders, gather at Sacred Hearts-St. Stephens Roman Catholic Church at Summit and Hicks streets. Men carry the statue of the sorrowful Maria on their shoulders in an hours-long procession throughout Carroll Gardens that includes singing, traditional clothing, incense, and stopping every once in a while to play instruments and sing. The Mary is in mourning over the death of Jesus, and is symbolic of the suffering parents feel when a child dies.
I arrived at the church shortly before 3 on Sunday, as hundreds of old men and women dressed in dark suits prepared to lead the Maria statue out of the church. The Feast is always the second Sunday of September; Good Friday is the other day of the year the statue is taken out. As many Molesi who lived in Carroll Gardens have scattered to Bensonhurst, Staten Island, and elsewhere, it had the feel of a reunion. Cheap firecrackers gave the signal to march, and a ragtag band kept up the rear of the procession. It seemed pulled from a Fellini film.
I followed the band as we set out on Hicks Street. The streets were blocked off for the procession. A thick nostalgia enveloped me like fog, and I grew emotional thinking about the continuity of the tradition. We stopped at the police station and later Scotto Funeral Home. I spoke to one old woman who has lived her whole life on Tompkins Place in Carroll Gardens, and has never missed a feast. She gave me rosary beads. I departed around 5, but the procession still had two hours to go before it returned to the church for a fireworks display and then Mass in Italian.
Here are some photos: