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UTICA, NEW YORK - Thirty-four years ago this month, a bus filled with Italian-Canadians left Toronto early on a Sunday morning bound for Utica to participate in the feast of Sts. Cosmas and Damian. The pilgrims would attend Mass at St. Anthony of Padua parish, participate in the grand procession and picnic on the grounds before heading home that evening.

Though insignificant at the time, this gesture set in motion an association of Catholic pilgrims from Canada and the United States that has become one of the largest annual religious feasts in the northeastern United States.

And the attraction continues to grow. Cavalcades of buses from Canada and surrounding U.S. states stream toward Utica to pay homage to Sts. Cosmas and Damian. They will do so again on Sept. 28-30. About 15,000 people attend annually, fully one-third of them from Toronto.

Cosmas and Damian were twin brothers whose lives as physicians and martyrs made them heroes of the early Church. Their popularity grew through the ages. The Utica celebration began in 1912, a year after the founding of St. Anthony of Padua Church. A group of parishioners, many of them immigrants from Southern Italy, organized the Sts. Cosmas and Damian Society which this year celebrates its centennial. The society hosts its annual celebration of the “Twin Saints” near the saints’ Sept. 26 feast day.

At its peak in the Second World War years, upwards of 30,000 pilgrims were drawn to the event.

But by the late 1970s, numbers had dwindled to fewer than 8,000 and some doubted the three-day affair would continue.

St. Anthony’s Deacon Bill Dischiavo was well aware of the large Italian population in the Toronto area. So in mid-August 1978, Dischiavo, knowing the society was in need of a jump start, placed an ad in an Italian periodical in Toronto. Weeks passed and “not a word” from the north, the deacon reflected recently. Then on that last Sunday in September, a bus filled with Italian-Canadians drove up to St. Anthony’s. The first to exit was a construction worker named Vince Tavella, a parishioner at St. Francis of Assisi parish in downtown Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood. He found the deacon, introduced himself and members of his entourage.

“He asked for chairs and a picnic table,” the deacon recalled. They attended Mass, participated in the procession and picnicked. Before leaving, Tavella promised to return the following year and has kept his pledge for more 30 years.

As he sat in the festival picnic area last year, the 72-year-old Tavella retraced those early years.

“The first year (1978) one bus,” he said. In 1979, three buses. Ten buses in 1980. This year society members forecast about 90 buses.
Tavella’s devotion to the martyrs has never faded. For more than 30 years, Tavella and his wife Maria have made the pilgrimage to Utica. In 2009, St. Anthony parishioners presented him with a plaque now inscribed at the shrine of the Twin Saints. It symbolizes his contribution to the parish and society.

Priests and parish leaders from other Toronto parishes head delegations that make up the Canadian Express. Among them is Fr. Amedeo Nardone, pastor of St. Jane Francis parish in Toronto. For 30 years he has led bus groups to the feast and celebrates a number of the weekend Masses (he will do so again this year). Pilgrims hear his booming voice — via a megaphone — as he leads the faithful through East Utica streets during candlelight and grand processions. Other delegations come from St. Philip Neri and St. Lawrence Churches.

The legacy of the martyrs is demonstrated by parish faithful and partisans who have named their offspring after the saints. A pair of Toronto twin teachers fit the mold. Cosmo and Damian Femia entertain thousands with Italian folk music. Both teach at Loretto Abbey Secondary School in Toronto. They are part of a trio that has engaged pilgrims the past three years. Proceeds from their “two-day gig” are given to the parish.
They make the trip to honour their parents, Casimo and Rosina. The twins were born in Toronto 34 years ago. When their father called Calabria, Italy, to relay the good news, a relative replied, “Name them Cosmo and Damian.”

A triduum precedes the feast and concludes with a healing Mass for the sick and handicapped on Friday night. Ten Masses take place on Saturday and Sunday. Six Masses are said in English and four in Italian. At 7 p.m. Saturday about 10 priests concelebrate a Mass in the church while a Mass in Italian takes place at the outdoor shrine. A number of Masses are said in huge tents in the church lot.

(Cimino is a freelance writer in Utica, N.Y.)

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