In 1544, a Turkish armada threatened the Italian coastal town of Amalfi. The Amalfitani feared for the safety of the town’s most prized possession, the bones of St. Andrew the Apostle. They prayed to their town’s patron saint to intercede on their behalf.
On June 27, 1544, according to legend, an old man appeared on the shore at Amalfi and dropped a stick into the water, creating a tempest strong enough to wipe out the entire Turkish fleet. The Amalfitani have celebrated the miracle ever since—in Amalfi, and in New Haven’s Wooster Square, aka Amalfi West.
This weekend, 467 years after the miracle, crowds flocked at the headquarters of the Society of St. Andrew the Apostle off Wooster Square to keep alive the traditions of Amalfi in New Haven, where many descendants of the Amalfitani have settled.
Besides Italian food and music, Saturday night, the festival’s third evening, offered Italian Americans in New Haven an opportunity to remember and reconnect with their heritage.
“We emulate the customs that they celebrate in Amalfi,” said Ladies’ Society president and festival co-chair Theresa Argento. Argento, along with her brother Frank Carrano, was responsible for reviving the festival in 1975; it had gone dormant during World War II. The saint’s day procession, however, has been constantly performed since the Men’s Society was founded in 1900.
Argento, who has been involved with the society since age 13, said that the society serves not only to preserve the heritage of Amalfi in New Haven but to maintain ties with the town today. New Haven and Amalfi have a relationship Argento describes as a “bridge of love”; there have been student exchanges in the past, and a delegation including Amalfi’s archbishop visited New Haven for a festival last winter.
“If you go to Amalfi and say, ‘I’m from New Haven,’ you’re family,” Argento said.
New Haven once had the largest proportion of Italian-Americans of any city in the United States, Argento said. A large contingent came from Amalfi. Amalfi has few industries; factories in New Haven provided opportunities for employment.
Theresa McClure, 92, recalled that her father participated in the Sunday procession in the 1920s (both her parents came from Amalfi) because the Amalfitano community imposed a fine on those who did not participate. Though participation has long been voluntary, McClure’s family has remained involved with the society ever since. McClure said she has grown close to her fellow members of the Ladies’ Society.
“If you needed a hand, they were right there to help,” McClure said.
McClure said she feels lucky to have been raised with a strong sense of her heritage and to have learned the Italian language. Throughout her life she remained in contact with her remaining family members in Amalfi.
“This is great that we’re still having the traditional feast days,” McClure said.
Babe Acampora, another society member who spent Saturday evening selling raffle tickets, praised the society for preserving the festival and other traditions from Italy.
“We learn things from our heritage, and we’ve got to keep it going,” Acampora said.
Society members said they are confident that the traditional observance of the miracle of St. Andrew will continue. While many pointed to Argento as a guiding force—“As long as we have Theresa Argento, we’ll always have the feast of St. Andrew,” McClure said—they also said that younger people have become more interested in joining. Argento’s granddaughter, for instance, has taken a leadership role.
“It’s wonderful because we’ll no longer be here, but at least we know this will continue,” Argento said.