It is an incredible sight, one straight out of a Fellini movie.
A statue of Jesus encased in a glass casket carried by men dressed as pall bearers march somberly ahead of a large group of mourning women holding candles; praying and singing dirges in Italian through the winding streets. They make way for the Mater Dolorosa, the Our Lady of Sorrows statue, hoisted up into the night sky on a bier, veiled in black, a single dagger through her heart. Wood crosses are erected -- draped in purple, red or white silk. The marching band plays "There is No Death." No, this is not happening in a village in Italy, this is Good Friday in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.
The faithful have gathered at the Sacred Hearts Church of Jesus and Mary and Saint Stephen for this annual funeral-like procession in Brooklyn since 1948 to honor Our Lady of Sorrows, the patron saint of Mola di Bari, Italy. Thousands from the town immigrated to Carroll Gardens and the surrounding South Brooklyn neighborhoods in the mid-20th Century and brought this somber Holy Week tradition with them.
Our Lady of Sorrows symbolizes the suffering we feel at the loss of a loved one. The dagger through Mary's heart is a symbol of the pain a parent feels when they lose a child. The procession calls devotees to mourn not just Mary's loss, but their own. It brings the death of Jesus out from the churches, from the museum galleries, from the pages of the Bible, and literally into their own backyards. A reminder that death is ever present, and though it may be the end of life, it is not the end of faith.
The procession is an old world spectacle seemingly out of place in this modern age. A throwback on these tree-lined blocks, yet hundreds of people, both believers and rubberneckers struck by the sight, line the brownstoned streets silently, reverently, as the worshippers march by. They pray along with the women in the procession, waving vintage handkerchiefs in sympathetic grief, and some even raise glasses of wine as a toast to the sad celebration.
Participant Sal DiMaggio explains that this is the result of two Italian clubs coming together -- the Jesus statue comes from Sicilian Club Nights of Columbus and Our Lady comes from the Pugliese club Our Lady of Loretto. He goes on to explain that it is considered a great honor for the men who carry the statues and for the women who get to sew the new black-laced garments for the Our Lady of Sorrows statue each year.
It is apparent on this night that as much as Carroll Gardens has modernized, Italian Catholic roots run extremely deep.
"I've been coming for 44 years. It's always the same, and that's the beauty of it," DiMaggio says as he disappears into the parade.