© 2022 KVPR | Valley Public Radio - White Ash Broadcasting, Inc. :: 89.3 Fresno / 89.1 Bakersfield
NPR For Central California
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Culture

Maschitans Celebrate St. Elia With Bidding Match, Procession Around The Old Neighborhood

st_elia.jpg
Alice Daniel
/
KVPR
The statue of St. Elia is pushed on a cart during the procession.

On the stairs of St. Alphonsus, a century-old, ornate Catholic church in West Fresno, generations of families are lining up. 

“Hey you guys we’re taking a group picture,” someone calls out.

The young and the old inch a little this way and that to squeeze in more closely. They’re all here to celebrate St. Elia, the patron saint of their ancestral village in Italy called Maschito.  Maschitans immigrated here between 1880 and 1920.  

 

 

“Can you see the statue down there?” Mike Jura yells down to the photographer. He’s referring to a carved wooden statue of St. Elia that’s sitting on a table at the top of the church stairs. The photographer nods.

“OK go ahead, take a couple,” Jura yells. 

group_photo_2__2_.jpg
Credit Atticus Boone / KVPR
/
KVPR
Families whose relatives came from Maschito, Italy more than a century ago line up on the stairs of St. Alphonsus.

Pictures snapped, now it’s time for a procession through the old neighborhood. But not before a short bidding war takes place. Families bid on the right to escort the carved statue in a cart through the streets. The money helps fund next year’s event.  

Jura yells out the bids. “$800, $1000,” he says.

The September sun is oppressive and the stately palm trees outside the church don’t offer much respite. Still, as head of the St. Elia celebration committee, he tries his best to entertain. 

“If we get enough we’re gonna go on a trip,  we’re going to Malaga!” And then the punchline. “California, not Spain.”

mike_dura.jpg
Credit Alice Daniel / KVPR
/
KVPR
Mike Jura asks for bids from families. The winner earns the right to accompany the statue during the procession.

“The winning bid,” he says. “Dick Caglia. Five thousand dollars.” 

 

“Ok, we need the band to strike up,” says Sally Caglia, Dick’s sister. She cues the Bullard High School Jazz band to get the procession going. 

  

Families carry signs with their last names on them: Leonie, Dami, Jura, DeLuca. Kids in angel costumes march alongside kids wearing the colors of the Italian flag. There’s even a customary queen. Caglia says the original St. Elia festival started in Maschito around 1537 by Albanian refugees. They’d fled their homeland after the Turks occupied it. 

“When the Albanians got settled in the village of Maschito, it was a drought so they prayed to the prophet Elijah,” Caglia says. “The rains came, it became St. Elia.”

Elia, the Italian name for Elijah. When Mashcitans immigrated to Fresno centuries later, they brought the tradition of the festival with them.  

“Come with me, I’ll show you something,” Caglia says as she steps away from the procession. On the sidewalk nearby, she points to a metal ring on the curb. “That’s where they used to tie the horses up when they came to Mass in 1910.”  

 

bishop.jpg
Credit Alice Daniel / KVPR
/
KVPR
A mass is held before the festival begins. Bishop Joseph Brennan greets people as he leaves St. Alphonsus.

 

It’s the same year the festival started in Fresno. Most families came here to farm. Caglia’s grandpa owned a corner store two blocks east of the church. 

“And my dad went to school here at St. Alphonsus as did my brothers. We attended mass every Sunday,” she says.

But the demographics of the neighborhood have changed. Caglia says most of the Maschitans moved out in the 1960s and started going to another church north of town. But just this year, the Italian Catholic Federation moved back to St. Alphonsus and Caglia who still attends here is hoping others will follow.

 

“And create a fellowship with the Guadalupanas and the African American Catholics that attend here,” she says.

angels.jpg
Credit Alice Daniel / KVPR
/
KVPR
Angels enjoy a snack before the procession begins.

As the procession winds back to the church, Pat Marchese reflects on what the festival means. He was baptized at St. Alphonsus. So was his father. His great grandparents and grandparents came from Maschito.  

“It means family to me. That’s what it means.  The Maschitans. Everyone of us are probably related in some way. There’s probably more here in Fresno than in Italy,” he says.

The parade over, kids gulp down water and hurry out of their hot costumes. Beverly Amador and her sister Joanne Espinoza help them. “OK hold on, hold on,” they say as the kids try to quickly wriggle out of their angel’s wings. 

Amador says their grandfather came to Fresno in 1908 after landing at Ellis Island in New York. He worked at Del Monte and later farmed. The angel’s wings and headgear she’s gathering up were made decades ago by their mother. 

queen.jpg
Credit Atticus Boone / KVPR
/
KVPR
The queen and her court get ready to join the procession around the neighborhood.

She and “some of the Italian women that belonged to the church made a lot of the costumes you see here,” Amador says.  

 

Even the queen’s costume. This year’s queen is Amador’s niece, Aspen Allred  

“I was looking forward to being queen since I started doing this, maybe 5 when I started doing it,” she says. 

She’s 16 now. She walked at the front of the procession.  

“It was just an honor because I was carrying on the tradition for my family. It was very hot but it was worth it,” she says.

As the street empties out, a few people linger on the church lawn including Andrea Polegato. He’s the new assistant professor in Italian Studies at Fresno State. 

Polegato grew up in Italy, but he says he had never heard about the little village of Maschito until now.

“It’s very interesting to hear the stories from the people especially from the grandfathers, the grand grandfathers, coming here. It’s beautiful to see how this tradition of celebrating St. Elia is still alive here,” he says. It’s a way to make the community come alive every year too, he adds.   

And a way to teach more recent arrivals like Polegato something new about the old country.