HAMMONTON - In this community where it is common for volunteer firefighters to serve for more than 50 years, the all-male society that has run the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Italian Festival for 138 years stands out for its longevity.
Joining the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Society is not easy. Its membership is limited to 50 people and is open only to descendants of the original founders, who started it in 1875.
"The sons of members have priority, then the sons-in-law," said retired fire official David Longo, of Buena, a member of more than 50 years whose grandfather was president decades ago.
The society operates the longest-running Italian festival in the nation. It has gone on every year, even through world wars, said President Lou J. Pantalone, 57, founder of Univers Workplace Solutions in Hammonton.
"Those during World War II had the highest attendance," he said. "We had more than 50,000 people in one day in this little town."
Today, daily attendance averages 5,000 to 10,000, Pantalone said. For a week, starting this year on July 10, about five acres at Third and French streets across from St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church will hold carnival rides, food booths and beer gardens, and other concession stands.
The festival began in 1875 as a procession for the Catholic Church's Our Lady of Mount Carmel Feast Day July 16. The first was held about 10 years before the first Catholic Church was built in Hammonton, Pantalone said.
It was a way to pay tribute to the Virgin Mary and thank her for a safe trip to the U.S. from Italy, and for prosperity once immigrants arrived in Hammonton.
"We're here to worship Our Lady," said Jack Owens, of Hammonton, one of the few Irish members of the society. He married into an Italian family, and got his membership as a son-in-law 32 years ago, said the retiree.
In paying tribute to Mary, the group also helps the community.
The festival is the nonprofit group's biggest fundraiser and generates about $15,000 per year for the three churches that make up Hammonton's Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish.
Money also is raised through hoagie sales and other events for community groups. Pantalone said a food booth at the Rotary Club's Hammonton Wine Festival in May raised $3,500 for the Hammonton Volunteer Fire Department. In total, the group donates more than $30,000 per year to various groups, he said.
"We ask a lot of our members," said David DeStefano, of Hammonton, who works in the Egg Harbor City Post Office and is a Hammonton police dispatcher. "It's a big responsibility to be a member." DeStefano is the group's treasurer and has been a member since about 1978, when he was a teenager.
Longo, the 50-year member, said his son, David Jr., also recently retired, from the State Police. Longo's son is a member, but his 29-year-old grandson isn't ready yet for the responsibility of joining, he said.
Members are expected to make every monthly meeting and to take on a responsibility to make the festival happen, DeStefano said recently at a work party on the festival grounds. He and others already had constructed booths in front of their membership hall, where they will sell food during the weeklong festival, all cooked by members with the help of their wives and children who volunteer.
The society's booth is known for its sausage, pepper and onion sandwiches; steak sandwiches, broccoli rabe with pork; and meatball sandwiches, said John Zucconi, of Hammonton, a member for 47 years who helps with the cooking.
Last week members put up temporary fencing for two beer gardens flanking the membership hall where there will be live music.
July 16 is always the most important date of the festival, because it marks the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The Carmelite order believes that's the day in 1251 that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Simon Stock. The Carmelites say she presented to him a brown scapular (cloth for a monk's robes) that became the order's robes.
To observe the date, the faithful walk slowly through the streets of town along with leading society members, who hold a statue of Mary. It takes about three hours now, and in years past the procession went on for five hours or more, Pantalone said.
There are Masses all day in church.
"All the Italians who came here wanted to thank Mary," said George Campanella, of Hammonton, a retired heavy equipment operator who has been carnival chairman for decades and is a former 23-year society president. He joined in 1972, he said.
He handles arrangements with Amusements of America, based in Monroe Township, Middlesex County. Campanella said the company is the largest portable carnival provider in the world. It has provided the carnival rides for the festival since about 1960, Campanella said.
Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:
If you go
The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Italian Festival will be held from 6 to 11 p.m. weeknights and 6 p.m. to midnight weekend nights, July 10 to July 16, at the festival grounds on the 200 block of Third Street in Hammonton. Admission is free. The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Procession will be held at 4 p.m. July 16, starting at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, 220 Third St. There will be fireworks that evening. Visit http://mountcarmelsociety.homestead.com/Feastweek.html.