In 1929, a group of Italian-Catholic Immigrants formed the Saint Rocco Fraternal Society in the Edgeworth section of Malden, Massachusetts, to help locals afflicted with flu. They named it for a 14th century patron saint of protection against illness.

This year’s Saint Rocco’s Feast, which runs from Aug. 11 to 13, 2023, opened with a procession of a statue of St. Rocco from the Italian American Citizens Club, five blocks south down Pearl Street to the site of the neighborhood Catholic church, which closed in 2004. There, all weekend, cover bands perform and vendors offer carnival games and sell lemonade, pizza, canolis, sausages, T-shirts and jewelry.

The feast continuines a tradition begun with the first festival held in August 1929. Over the years, the celebration grew into an annual three-day event to raise money to provide death benefits to member families who lost their loved ones during the year. These days “funds raised by the St. Rocco’s Society will be used to assist needy students in meeting financial obligations to further their education and to assist individuals and families in securing adequate food, shelter and clothing,” the organization says.

Saint Rocco's Feast procession on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023. (©Greg Cook photo)
Saint Rocco’s Feast procession on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023. (©Greg Cook photo)

Who was St. Rocco? The organization’s website explains:

“Saint Rocco was born of noble parentage about 1340 A.D. in Montpellier, France. At birth it was noted that he had a red cross-shaped birthmark on the left side of his chest. As a young child, San Rocco showed great devotion to God and the Blessed mother. At an early age, his parents died leaving him an orphan under the care of his uncle, the Duke of Montpellier. Soon after, San Rocco distributed his wealth among the poor and took a vow of poverty.

“San Rocco dressed in the clothes of a pilgrim and departed for Rome. At that time, Italy was stricken with a rampant disease. San Rocco cured many of this dreaded disease by praying for them and making the sign of the cross.

“During his travels, he too contracted the plague which was evident by an open sore on his leg. Rocco was banished from the city and took refuge in a cave. Here he slept on leaves and drank water from a small stream. Miraculously a dog that refused to eat, faithfully brought him bread as a means of sustenance. The dog used to leave a nearby castle and the Lord of this castle having a curious nature followed this dog into the woods and discovered Rocco. The nobleman had pity on Rocco and brought him to his castle where Rocco was cured.

“San Rocco traveled through northern Italy for two or three more years before returning to his birthplace in France. So weak and sick from suffering, the townspeople did not recognize him and he was thrown into jail as a spy without any proof. But yet he was kept in prison for five years. On August 16, 1378, a guard entered his cell and found San Rocco near death. The dungeon was illuminated with a blue light radiating from his body. Upon hearing this, the Governor demanded to know San Rocco’s identity. San Rocco faintly replied, I am your nephew Rocco. Only one thing could prove that, so he had him disrobed and the red cross-like mark was visible on the left side of his chest. The Governor and the townspeople present in the cell then believed. A voice from paradise was heard announcing that San Rocco’s soul had merited immortal glory in Heaven. Even after his death, San Rocco performed many miracles.

“Saint Rocco is venerated in the Roman Catholic Church as the protector against the plague and all contagious diseases. The statue of Saint Rocco is considered unique among theologians because of his pose. It is most unusual because it depicts him with his left hand pointing to an open sore on his left leg. Few images of saints expose any afflictions or handicaps. His body is enclosed in a glass tomb in the church of San Rocco in Venice, Italy. We commemorate the death of this great follower of Christ on August 16th of each year.”

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