HAMMONTON - The eternal battle between good and evil is being waged in streets of downtown Hammonton this week.
In one corner is Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which is a title sometimes given to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Catholics and other Christians believe she is the mother of God and often pray to her for miracles and healings.
In the other is a scrawny teenager wearing spectacles and carrying a twig: Harry Potter.
At 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, the newest Harry Potter movie, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," became the first first-run movie to be played at the newly renovated Eagle Theatre on Vine Street in more than a half century. At the same time, the town's largest annual religious event - the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel festival - continues throughout the week.
In May, the Rev. Thomas J. Euteneuer, an exorcist who says he has performed dozens of successful exorcisms, told several hundred area Catholics at a Knights of Columbus event that Harry Potter was the work of Satan.
Despite what the Rev. Euteneuer said, it's hard to find anyone in Hammonton who considers Harry Potter a demonic device. Instead of a battle of good and evil, they say Hammonton is really experiencing two good things this week.
Jeffrey Barbagallo was lounging in his Eagle Theatre seat an hour and a half before the movie started.
The 20-year-old Hammonton resident's costume - a sweater vest, tie and glasses - illustrated very clearly whose corner he was in.
"To me, Harry Potter is just a story. Not something evil," Barbagallo said. "And it's a story that gets young kids, who otherwise would be playing video games, to read 700-page books again and again."
Atco resident Lisa Dempster brought her 16-year-old son, Shane, and his friend to the movie without any concern about possible Satanic influences the film might have on the teens.
"If people are looking for evil, they'll find it in anything," Dempster said. "This is good, clean fun."
Rosaria Mineo, the managing director of the Eagle Theatre, said theater representatives were debating ideas such as silent movies and James Bond-themed events before settling on the Harry Potter showing.
"It is a good, wholesome family entertainment," Mineo said. "It is dark, but it is also good at heart. And it shows the real-world perspective of the value of being good."
Youngsters dressed as wizards and witches lined up in front of the Eagle Theatre late Tuesday night. The line started forming more than three hours before the opening credits of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" rolled on the screen. About four blocks away, the lights of carnival rides flickered in celebration of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
According to Frank Carrelli, one of the event's organizers, a group of Italian-immigrant farmers started the festival in 1875 as way to give thanks to Our Lady of Mount Carmel for their safe journey to America and to pray to her to bless their crops.
"It started out on Pine Road, but over the years it grew in popularity and was eventually moved to Third Street," said Sal Capelli, another one of the organizers.
The festival features daily Masses, including a Mass for peace and Mass for healing. It also hosts a plethora of food vendors, carnival rides, games and, on Thursday, the Procession of the Saints, during which thousands of Catholics will parade the statues of saints through the streets.
But what if Euteneuer was right and Harry Potter is evil? What will have the most lasting impact on the youth of Hammonton - the Our Lady of Mount Carmel festival or the opening of the latest Harry Potter flick?
"The Mount Carmel festival is a long tradition, but Harry Potter is such a fresh look on storytelling," Barbagallo said. "I think young people appreciate that more than watching a crowd of people carry statues down the street."
But Louis J. Pantalone, the vice president of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Society, argued that in pure volume, the festival would win outright.
"They can't hold as many people as we can," Pantalone said.
The Eagle Theatre quickly sold all of its 206 seats to the midnight Harry Potter showing. The movie earned $22.2 million in midnight ticket sales at 3,003 locations, according to Warner Bros.
The Our Lady of Mount Carmel festival is expected to draw about 40,000 visitors during the six-day event, including as many at 10,000 for the Procession of the Saints alone.
"Our Lady will win," said George Campanella, the president of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Society. "Trust me. Good will win."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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