For almost as long as Italians have lived in Hoboken, they have been coming to the feast of St. Ann at St. Ann’s Catholic Church. The annual celebration began 104 years ago, when a statue of St. Ann arrived from a tiny Italian village in the Apennine mountains near Salerno. As late as 1960, nearly a quarter of Hoboken’s residents were Italian-born, and the festival and church were the sturdy polestar around which their community turned.
Hoboken’s decades-long gentrification has pushed many Italian-Americans out of the city, but the festival – which runs from July 23 through July 27 outside the church at Seventh and Jefferson streets – is still a popular attraction and an excuse to return to an earlier time.
“The city has changed tremendously,” said Marie Totaro, the co-chair of the festival, “but all the people that moved come back every year for the festival. Their children are even moving back here.”
This year’s festival offers a range of diversions for residents and visitors, including rides, games, crafts, raffles, face painting, international food stands, and nightly live music.
Act of devotion
The festivities follow a week of prayers and blessings in honor of St. Ann, mother to the Virgin Mary and grandmother to Jesus. Ann is the patron saint of mothers, women in labor, and women who hope to become pregnant, which Totaro says really makes her “the patron saint of everyone.”
On Thursday, the Catholic novena to St. Ann was kicked off with an entrance procession for the statue of St. Ann. The statue was brought to Hoboken from Monte San Giacomo in southern Italy in 1910. Many Italians in Hoboken, including Totaro, can still trace their heritage to Monte San Giacomo.
“I want my tradition to last.” – Marie Totaro
What’s in store
Every night at 8:15 p.m. from Wednesday to Sunday, a band will perform on a specially prepared stage in front of the church. Totaro said spectators set up chairs on the steps of St. Ann’s to watch the shows in comfort.
The first night will feature Dave Arellano, winner of Hoboken’s 2013 Sinatra Idol competition, accompanied by the Bill Wilkinson Orchestra.
Attendees can also see Latin band Ray Rodriguez y Swing Sabroso on July 24, Italian classics sung by Emil Stucchio and The Classics on July 26, and rock and roll covers by the Nerds on July 27.
However, the true headliner of the festival may be St. Ann’s famous zeppole. For the uninitiated, zeppole are the fried and sugared dough balls popular at Italian festivals and the Jersey Shore, and St. Ann’s has the best ones. Totaro said the line for zeppole stretched all the way down the block last year.
According to Totaro, the secret behind the zeppole are the women of the guild of St. Ann who make them every year, working eight hours straight each festival day to meet the demand of hungry Hobokenites. “They put a lot of love and devotion into their work,” said Totaro.
Almost as anticipated as the zeppole are the sausage and pepper sandwiches. In addition to these Italian-American classics, Totaro said visitors can expect a variety of international food options, including crepes.
Boon for church, community
Donations, vendor fees, sponsorship money, and proceeds from zeppole sales will all go to the church. St. Ann’s is currently in the midst of a three year, $2.5 million capital campaign to pay for significant repairs to its nearly 90-year-old church structure. As of June 30, the church had raised almost $518,000.
This sum includes a recent $7,500 grant from the Rebuild Hoboken Relief Fund organized to help local charities recovering from Superstorm Sandy.
For Totaro and her colleagues, keeping the St. Ann’s Festival going is a way of preserving not just the church but her own heritage.
“I want my tradition to last,” said Totaro. “I want this to go on and on. When tradition is gone, what do we have left? iPads?”
The St. Ann’s Italian Festival will run from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. from on July 23, 24, and 25. It will run from noon to 11 p.m. on July 26 and from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. on July 27. More information can be found at stannhoboken.com.