Religion. Politics. Power. Plots. Exile. Death.
All these ingredients create a perfect recipe for a dramatic plot. But residents of Ponza, the largest of the Pontine Islands off the Italian coast in the Tyrrehenian Sea, celebrate a man whose life experienced them all. The Ponzese annually celebrate the feast day of their patron saint on June 20 with a Roman Catholic Mass, a street procession with the statue, and abundant food. Accused of treason for another’s political gain, Pope Silverius was deposed in the early 6th century. Despite numerous attempts to prove his innocence, he was exiled to Palmarola, a harsh and rugged island 8 miles from Ponza, where he died.
The Ponzese were among the surge of Italian immigrants arriving in the United States between the 1880s and the 1920s. Many arrived in New York City and eventually settled in the Bronx. Like most immigrants, they continued their cultural traditions, one of which was the feast day celebration of their patron saint. A fraternal society organized the Bronx celebration, which would mimic the one in Ponza. After Mass at Our Lady of Pity Roman Catholic Church (now a closed parish on 151st Street near Morris Avenue), the faithful would process behind the statue throughout the neighborhood.
By the mid 20th century, irreverent onlookers would throw eggs and bottles from building windows onto the processors. In response, society member Ercito Mazzella offered to donate 81 acres of land in Dover Plains, NY that he recently purchased. Located approximately 70 miles north of the Bronx, Mazzella originally intended to develop the land but instead, urged the society to raise funds to build a shrine that would serve as a permanent site for future processions to be held in peace. In 2012, the San Silverio Shrine in Dover Plains will celebrate its 50th anniversary.
A Mass celebration and a small procession continues to be held every June 20 in the Morris Park section of the Bronx. A week later, on Sunday morning, the shrine in Dover Plains hosts another celebration attracting hundreds of families, all of whom are descended from or somehow connected to the island of Ponza.
Fr. Ciro Iodice, OFM, sailed to the United States from Ponza on the Andrea Dorea in 1956, the ship’s penultimate voyage before it sank. For the last 30 years, he has celebrated Mass at the shrine, driving several hours from Massachusetts to do so. He explained that many people participate in a procession because the saint is invoked for a specific intention or thanked for an answered prayer. “A procession is a solemn, spiritual dialogue where a person can be in communion with the saint, with other members processing, and with the earth…the surrounding elements, both visible and invisible.”
The procession snaked along a forested path, led by a marching band and Rev. Iodice followed by men who carried the statues of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and San Silverio with the rest of the participants behind them. The procession lasted 30 minutes with a pause in the middle for prayer. Red carnations on San Silverio’s boat were distributed to the crowd and several people pinned money to the ribbons adorning the saint’s statue at the conclusion of the ceremony. These donations were visible signs of requests or thanks.
Guido Rivieccio carried the statue of San Silverio this year as he has done for many previous years. “As a kid, I was involved with the feast in Morris Park and I’ve been carrying the statue for about 10-15 years,” said Rivieccio. He does it to honor his parents pointing especially to his father who was standing a few feet away. The elder Rivieccio carried the statue in New York and in Ponza as a young man. Rivieccio tries to remain connected to his roots by attending this annual celebration and by traveling back to Ponza. Four years ago, he tattooed an image of San Silverio on his entire right deltoid and bicep!
Over time, most societies formed by newly arrived immigrants whither away as the connection to the homeland becomes more distant. Yet for generations, these American descendants of Ponza have gathered with their families to celebrate this annual tradition in Dover Plains for almost 50 years. Their devotion to San Silverio and their connection to their roots have not died. Let’s hope they never do.