How Jessup ‘Carries’ On an Ancient Italian Tradition

Race of the Saints occurs in only two places in the world– Gubbio, Italy and Jessup, PA. The tradition honors St. Ubaldo, a 12th century bishop of Gubbio who saved his medieval town from the attack of Frederick I (Barbarossa) by building a wall. Residents carried St. Ubaldo on a platform through the streets to show he was physically unharmed and the town was safe.

St. Ubaldo Day in Jessup is celebrated on the Saturday during Memorial Day weekend. The traditions of the festival came to Northeast PA with Italian immigrants who settled in Jessup in the late 1800s. Most of the immigrants were from the Umbria region of Italy, which includes Gubbio. In 1909, they initated St. Ubaldo Day in Jessup. A parade was added in 1914.

St. Ubaldo Society, a non-profit organization, is responsible for maintaining and promoting the traditions of the feast day in Jessup. Members raise funds for the maintenance of the St. Ubaldo Society Cultural Center, housed in a  former church building that dates to 1924.This building hosts a life-size replica of the statue of St. Ubaldo that Gubbio uses for its celebration. The statue was hand-carved in Italy and donated to Jessup four years ago. The building also has statues of St. George of England and St. Anthony of Greece. All the statues are carried during the main procession. No one knows why the other two saints were added to the celebration. Some people believe that since St. Ubaldo is the patron saint of masons, St. George, the patron saint of merchants, and St. Anthony, the patron saint of farmers, the statues were added to symbolize the event is for all people. Each statue has its own “family,” home and shield. In April, members paint their shield on the pavement in front of their home.

On May 5 during Hospitality Night, the St. Ubaldo Society announces all of the events scheduled for St. Ubaldo Day (Saturday May 27). At 6 p.m. members also have a small procession through town. A 7 p.m. program officially announces the events for St. Ubaldo Day.

A host of festivities on the feast day lead up to the procession. In the morning, trumpeters and drummers from Valley View High School march through town from Jessup Station Park. The “families” involved in the main procession include the capodieci (captain of 10), the main steerer; the primo capitano and the secondo capitano. Family members (runners) and community leaders gather at St. John’s Italian-American Cemetery at 7:30 a.m. to lay a wreath and flowers in memory of deceased runners. At 8:30 a.m.,  everyone assembles at the St. Ubaldo Society Cultural Center for a blessing and prayer service. Afterwards, each “family” hosts a breakfast at their homes for the runners. Then, participants return to the cultural center to receive a mazzlin di fiori (little bunch of flowers), which they wear on their kercheifs (fazzoletto). Participants also don red sashes and white pants; however, each team wears different color shirts. St. Ubaldo’s team wears yellow, St. George, blue and St. Anthony–black.

Jessup Mayor Beverly Merkel presents the primo capitano of each team with the key to the city. Lackawanna County Commissioner Patrick O’Malley presents a plaque to the captains of each team and officially proclaims Saturday, May 27 as St. Ubaldo Day.

Participants assemble their ‘ceri’ (Italian for candle), which are actually octagonal wooden pillars. Ceris are placed on a wooden H-shaped platform called a stagna, which runners carry on their shoulders. The capocette (hatchetman) hammers a pin to attach the ceri and stagna into place. Once completed, the saint is 15 feet high and weighs about 400 pounds. The capodieci climbs on top of the frame to salute the town. He tosses vases, (imported from Italy and also called brocce) filled with holy water, into the crowd. After the vase shatters, people collect the pieces for 100 years of good luck.

The main procession (La Corsa dei Ceri) begins at 4 p.m. Although it is also known as the “Race of the Saints,” it is not a race at all. Runners carrying the St. Ubaldo statue always lead the way. The “race” starts on Powell Avenue. Runners proceed through town and finish at Veterans Memorial Field, where the Ceri is disassembled.

On Sunday, May 28, there’s a children’s Festa dei Ceri. Children ages 6 to 12 carry the saint of their choice through a scaled down route. The Ceri, which were imported from Italy in the 1970s, are smaller and lighter than those the adults carry.

The event draws visitors from all over the U.S., Italy and Canada. Attendance has soared to as many as 30,000 spectators. Scott Hall, president of St. Ubaldo Society, has participated in La Festa dei Ceri since he was 6-years-old. “It’s like Christmas in May for me,” he said. “I love this tradition. Hopefully, it’s around for many years.”  –Ben Freda