A Summer Religious Procession in Polignano a Mare, Italy

Italy has more public feasts to celebrate the saints, the Madonna, and sometimes Jesus, than any other culture. The feast of local patron saints is often the major event of the year in many villages, especially southern Italy. They are usually marked with religious processions in the streets upholding their patron saint, marching bands, fireworks, costumes, food, and special markets. Elaborate staging and lighting are often used to enhance the effect of the festival.

The cliff side town of Polignano a Mare on the coast of Puglia was the stage for this particular celebration that I witnessed in June of 2015. Although it was a week before the greatly anticipated 3-day feast of Saint Vitus, where the saint’s arm is carried by a procession through the streets, it may have been part a preliminary event. It was quite small but very serious.

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On the blue banner below are the words UNITALSI which I discovered stands for the National Union of Transporting Sick Italians in Lourdes and International Sanctuaries. The banner continues with the words, “Virgin of Lourdes, pray for us.”

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Intrigued, I did a little research and found that this organization was founded in 1903 by John the Baptist Tomassi, a young man who was greatly afflicted with deforming arthritis and bound to a wheelchair. He made the pilgrimage to Lourdes for healing and as he sat before the grotto where Mary had appeared to Santa Bernadette, he was greatly affected by those around him who reached out in love and kindness to the sick and disabled. Although he did not find physical healing, he came home and founded a charity that today has over 100,000 volunteers.

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The procession included many young, some of them disabled, as well as religious organizations, societies, and orders.

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Today, UNITALSI is present in all regions of Italy and run by voluntary commitment. Based in Rome, it is an outreach of the faithful to disabled, sick and elderly people to provide them with loving assistance and encouragement. The organization promotes pilgrimages to Lourdes as well as local and international shrines.

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There were very few, if any, tourists in sight other than my two friends and myself. What was happening before us was simply life….it wasn’t geared towards tourists. It was a local celebration in a beautiful town on a warm summer evening. I felt honored to just be there and witness a bit of culture that is a vital part of the lives of these people.

Have you ever seen or experienced a festival or celebration, religious or other, in Italy? Please tell me your thoughts…

16 thoughts on “A Summer Religious Procession in Polignano a Mare, Italy

  • Very interesting, thanks for sharing. I realized that seeing this type of thing on travels is a very important part of expanding our understanding and kindness to all people. I’ve seen religious celebrations and ceremonies from the Bali countryside to little French towns and even in the Scottish Highlands… though All Saints Day and Giorno dei Morti in Italy last year was such a treat to witness. Families coming together and spending the day in town squares. Strolling, hugging, sharing. It was quite special.

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  • Thanks, Susan! I was in Polignaro a Mare last September, and can only imagine how wonderful this would be. Some day I hope to see the Easter procession in my town, Sulmona — it seems we’re just never there in the early spring! Ciao! Linda

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  • Yes, ditto! The beauty of these events lies in their authenticity. These festas are not created for tourists –
    yet they’re not purely religious. They celebrate tradition. Where I am based in Alto Molise, the old are dedicated to passing on traditions and the young are definitely connected, and affected by the traditions of their communities. It gives them a strong sense of who they are. One of the joys of our immersion holidays is the opportunity to be present at these events – there is bound to be one in a 5 mile radius every week throughout the summer! Each one unique, and a privilege to witness.

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    • Thank you for your perspective, Jenifer. It’s understandable how the younger generation would be deeply affected by traditional religious celebrations, and that as a result they get a strong sense of identity from them. To experience this part of the Italian culture is truly moving….I felt close to the heart of the people and what is important to them and has been for centuries.

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  • You hit the nail on the head. Processions are a good opportunity to mix with the people and get a better feel for their lives. I’ve been to many. On my blog, I have posts on Reggio Calabria’s Procession of the Madonna and Badolato’s Easter Procession. And I agree with Julie in her comment above, there’s something very moving about being immersed in an event that emanates from the people.

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  • For several years whenever we visited Sant’Antimo, an abbey near Montalcino, I would see the poster advertising the “Processione solenne da Castelnuovo dell’Abate a Sant’Antimo con il Crocefisso e la statua della Madonna di Sant’Antimo” but the date never coincided with our travel plans. Imagine my delight to arrive one time and discover that the procession would be that very evening!! One of my very special memories!!

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  • My aunt and I were very fortunate to be in Padua (Padova) on June 13th several years ago to witness the feast day of their hometown boy, St Anthony (Santa Antonio)…of which I do have a strong affinity for.
    It was a marvelous several day’s leading up to the big day. Garish and touristy but also reverent and holy…..
    I loved every minute of it and was moved by the sacredness that so many found in the ceremony.
    The feast day’s are wonderful and special and I for one am glad that there are still those who make them a big deal!
    Thank you for sharing!!!

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  • i love the feste in smaller towns. i’ve been to many, but of course my favourite is the festa of La Madonna della Neve in Orsara di Puglia on August 5th. i always do the whole processione-even this year when it was stinking hot. The whole community is involved and it is really a special day. i wrote a post about the festa last year. Ciao, Cristina

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    • Ciao Cristina, I will have to look up your post on the festa! I loved the community aspect of it. To me, it is a priviledge to be a part of something so personal to the people of the village. Hope your summer is going well…

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