Preparing the way for Little italy procession

By  Sara Loftson, The Catholic Register
  • April 13, 2007
TORONTO - After hosting Little Italy’s Good Friday procession for 45 years, St. Francis of Assisi parish has got the planning and preparation down to a science. 
Many volunteers have watched it balloon from 500 to half-a-million participants, some flying in from the United States, others with high profiles such as Toronto’s mayor and police chief.

“We do our job with our heart, with our soul and dedication and then it’s the people who make it a success,” said Tony Piliggi, 70, who joined the original planning committee at the urging of a friend 40 years ago. “It’s something people really like, they come from everywhere. All walks of life, all nationalities. It’s something really appreciated by the community.”

Last year Piliggi worked on the procession just a week after having a kidney operation. He acts as a stage manager of sorts, organizing how the procession will run and explaining where people are needed on Good Friday.  

“It’s just a pleasure to see the devotion that people bring. The mothers and grandfathers they cry and give themselves to the religion,” said Piliggi, whose children and grandchildren also watch or participate.  

St. Francis of Assisi parish was originally built by Irish immigrants in the early 1900s. But as the Irish presence in the downtown core dwindled a wave of Italian immigrants took its place in the 1960s. That’s when the procession really took off. Parishioners originally performed a play inside the church followed by a short outdoor procession.  

Today, preparation for the procession officially starts on Ash Wednesday. “But to be honest we never stop,” said Fr. Raymond Falzon, O.F.M., associate pastor at St. Francis of Assisi.

Five thousand people volunteer their time, 200 actors dress in costume, several contribute on behalf of their club or association and 10 are the main co-ordinators who oversee their own section, including: public relations, contacting schools, character recruitment, costumes, clubs/ associations, statues, setup, procession marshalling and liaising with the Toronto Transit Commission, city hall and the police. 

The College and Dundas streetcars must be stopped in order for people to process from the church on Grace and Mansfield Streets, to Dundas, down Montrose, to College, Manning and through area side streets.

A collection is taken up during the procession to help cover costs. Parishioners volunteer their time to sew costumes, which are stored in the church basement, to help minimize expenses. The College Street Business Association has been a financial supporter from the beginning. 

A Portuguese, Maltese and Italian parish band processes with the group while playing music. 

Club members wheel eight life-sized statues, except for the statue of Christ which is carried on shoulders. Some statues include Jesus meeting Mary on the way to Calvary, the crucifixion of Christ, Mary Magdelene and Mary, the sorrowful mother.

In recent years Sylvio Amelio, an Italian artist who has sculpted bronze statues for the parish, has flown in for the procession. There is an exhibition in the parish hall that displays Amelio’s designs as well as art work from the children’s catechism class, props for the procession and sketches for the costumes.

Theme for this year is “Celebrating our faith and heritage.”

“People come in for different reasons and we take both faith and heritage aspects and celebrate both and hopefully the main part is looking at the self-giving sacrifice of Christ to humanity and (people) will learn from that,” said Falzon, who has headed the procession for the past five years.

There are banners describing the Stations of the Cross as a catechesis for those who come to watch as spectators. 

The procession includes all 14 stations with someone new standing in for Christ, Mary and other characters in each scene. The same people re-enact the scenes every year, cutting down on rehearsal time.  

Joe Rauti has been taking up his heavy wooden cross and playing the part of Jesus for 38 years. He’s only missed one year for a back operation.

Rauti abstains from eating for up to three days beforehand to prepare for his role.

“I have a drink, but I don’t eat much. Good Friday I don’t eat anything, no bread, no water, no wine, nothing.

“I carry the cross for my body (and) for my spirit because I don’t want to make a mistake. I’m 68 years old, but my body’s not the same as when I was 19 or 20.”

The fact that Rauti has maintained good health all these years strengthens his faith. 

“For me I feel like a young man. I’ve never been sick. One year I had no shoes. It rained, it was cold and a lot of people say ‛oh my God look at this guy.’ One lady said ‛this guy who carries the cross never gets a cold because God needs him to carry (it).’ ” 

While Rauti doesn’t show any signs of stopping any time soon, he hopes when that time comes a young person will replace him. 

“I hope young people can come to start it, to practise it, to feel it, to believe in God.”

“I think there is starting to be a transition as there is a younger generation, but it is their baby. (The older generation) are the ones who are the glue who binds it,” said Francesca Maio, 25, who is in her third year of law at the University of Windsor.

“But we all seem to meld together because we’ve worked so closely and so long together. The age isn’t something that separates us.”

Maio’s grandmother brought her mother Joanna to watch the procession as a child right after they had immigrated to Canada from Italy in 1968. As a mother, Joanna passed on the tradition to Francesca and her other two children, driving the family in from Mississauga. Now as adults they all still participate.

“We’ve almost become like a little family, the people who’ve been organizing it for years,” said Francesca Maio. “And hopefully (it’s) something I can share with my children some day.”

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