Eighty-year-old Rosaline Delzoppo of Cleveland, Ohio, expects nearly 30 guests for a special buffet dinner this August. She’ll start cooking several weeks in advance, ordering skate — a whitefish — from a fish market downtown to make scapese, a specialty from her family’s native town of Abruzzo, Italy. She is likely to make stewed tripe and several types of biscotti — including biscotti di regina, or queen’s biscuits. The occasion? The Feast of the Assumption.
It is a feast with an uncertain origin, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia (online at www.newadvent.org). The story of the Assumption into heaven of the Virgin Mary is nowhere to be found in the Gospels, but it appeared in Christian writings from the fourth or fifth century, and has been celebrated by the faithful since early Christian times. By the 16th century, the Madonna — wreathed in glory and traveling heavenward — was a popular subject for painters. By 1950, when Pope Pius XII issued a papal bull defining the Assumption as Catholic dogma, the feast already was an established tradition, celebrated by devout Catholics worldwide.
Although Mary’s tomb is venerated in the Church of the Sepulchre in the Valley of Cedron, near Jerusalem, many scholars believe that she died in Ephesus (a Greco-Roman city now in Turkey), somewhere between three and fifteen years after Christ’s crucifixion. No one knows on what day, month, or year her death occurred, and at various times in history the Assumption was celebrated in January, February, September, or November. But today it is nearly universally celebrated on August 15, a date that coincides in many countries with harvest time.
The feast day is kept with liturgy and song, with special ceremonies (canoe flotillas in Brazil, the Blessing of the Fleet in maritime Canada, decorating of churches with herb bouquets in Germany) and, of course, with food. Foods that became associated with the feast day include wheat and special breads (in Scotland, a bannock of fresh corn is prepared), fresh herbs (verbena and thyme among them) and vegetables and fruits such as eggplants, melons, and grapes. In the Greek Orthodox Church the feast day, known as the Dormition (“falling asleep,” a reference to the image of Mary’s simply falling asleep rather than dying), is among the most important summer holidays.
The same could be said for Cleveland. There, each August, 80,000 people gather annually for the Feast of the Assumption, which features music, entertainment, carnival rides, and fireworks. At the heart of the celebration, in the city’s Little Italy, stands Holy Rosary Church, the 114-year-old parish which is still home to the descendants of the many Italian immigrants who came to work as stonecutters and factory workers at the turn of the 20th century. Some hailed from Ripalimosani, in Molise, a town that claims Our Lady of the Assumption as its patron. In 1898, six years after the church was founded, the first Feast of the Assumption celebration was held. It’s been growing ever since.
Father Philip G. Racco, pastor of the church, works hard to keep the focus of the celebration on the sacred aspects of the feast day. The four-day festival includes daily Mass, a solemn Mass on the 15th, an opening and closing procession of the statue of the Madonna, and daily recitations of the Rosary.
The parish also comes together to raise money for the church school, a Montessori school serving children from age 3 through the sixth grade. And though some people may come for the church services, or the Italian folk band, or the fireworks, many stick around for the food.
The church hosts a pasta dinner of cavatelli and meatballs in the parish hall, and there are vendors everywhere, selling such specialties as cannoli, fried dough, fried mozzarella, ravioli, tiramisu, Italian ice, pizza, and sausages. Many people who grew up in the neighborhood but moved away return to visit friends and relatives. And to eat. That’s where Delzoppo comes in. Family and friends will return, clamoring for the foods they remember.
“It’s a lot of work, but as long as everyone enjoys it, I’m willing to do it,” says Delzoppo. “As long as I’m alive, I’ll keep up the tradition.” CD