125th anniversary of devotion felt like family reunion to many

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, September 14, 2022

125th anniversary of devotion felt like family reunion to many

Bishop Joseph Perry was the main celebrant for a Mass to celebrate the 125th Anniversary of the Feast of the Madonna Incoranata at St Therese Chinese Mission in Chinatown on Sept. 11, 2022. Every September, Italian Catholics of Santa Maria Incoronata assemble on Alexander Street in Chicago's Chinatown to pay homage to the Blessed Mother. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
This statue of the Madonna and Christ child, which was carved out of a pear tree and covered in plaster, is the centerpiece for the Feast of the Madonna Incoranata. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Bishop Perry celebrates the Eucharist. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Lucille Salerno and Jim Distasio pray during Mass. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
On both ends of the altar, Father Francis Li, pastor, St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish, and Father Joseph Tito, pastor emeritus, pray while Bishop Perry elevates the cup. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Bishop Perry distributes Communion during Mass. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A couple lights a candle near the statue following Mass. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Two women approach the statue to venerate it after Mass. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Members of the Sicilian Band of Chicago play inside church after Mass. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Lucille Salerno, auxiliary president of the Club Santa Maria Incoronata, gathers her grandchildren together for a photo after Mass. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Members of the Gorfreda family pose for a picture by the statue after Mass. (Photo provided)

For the nearly 500 people who packed into St. Therese Church, 218 W. Alexander St., the Sept. 11 celebration of the 125th anniversary of Santa Maria Incoronata felt like a family reunion.

The Santa Maria Incoronata Club, made up of members of the families who first formed Santa Maria Incoronata Parish, gather every year on the Sunday nearest the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and celebrate with Mass and a procession, carrying a statue of their patroness crowned in gold through the streets.

The procession this year was canceled because of rainy weather, but members of the club, most of whom live in other neighborhoods or suburbs now, get a chance to worship in their home church and see the statue that was commissioned as a replica of the one in Ricigliano, the town near Salerno from which most of the original parishioners hailed.

“In Italy, they take the statue out to the fields in the spring and bring back in the fall, and that’s when they have the festival,” said Ruth Williamson, whose parents were among the founders of the parish. Coming back to the church is important, she said, because “this is where everything started.”

Two of her nieces, Kathy Guarino and Christine Caponigri Frech, were among the participants at the Mass, clad in blue club polo shirts.

As young girls in the 1970s and 1980s, they wore white dresses to walk in the procession behind the statue of Santa Maria Incoronata, and carried “cuentas,” or small altars with candles and statues. After the procession, the whole family would gather in a building their grandparents bought when they arrived in the neighborhood for dinner, a tradition they continued this year.

Bishop Joseph Perry, who celebrated the Mass, noted that the parish, originally Santa Maria Incoronata, then St. Therese Chinese Catholic Mission starting in 1963 and now St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish, has long welcomed people of different ethnicities.

The number of people who come back for the Santa Maria Incoronata Mass speaks of the “loyalty and affection” they have for Mary, Bishop Perry said.

“She must be proud as she gazes on the celebration of her son’s saving us,” the bishop said.

The Gospel readings, which included the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son, speak of God’s desire to recover what is lost, Bishop Perry said, and what we must realize is that everyone is in some way lost.

Mary, as a mother, is always looking to bring her children back, he said.

“She is like any mother, concerned about a lost child, or lost children,” Bishop Perry said. “Especially in her appearances, she has exhibited sharp concern for her lost children. … She has quite a wardrobe in her closet in heaven. She always appears in the image, the clothing, the makeup of the culture of the people she is representing.”

After the Mass, Bishop Perry offered Benediction, the Sicilian band that would normally lead the procession offered a short concert and members of the congregation had an opportunity to take photos with the statue before heading to the lower level for refreshments.

The statue was adorned with golden crowns for both the Madonna and Child, crowns that were made from gold jewelry donated by parishioners of Santa Mara Incoronata on the 50th anniversary of the parish, now 75 years ago.

Jim Distasio, son of Santa Maria Incoronata Club president Jim Distasio, said the club has lasted because of its solid foundation.

“They had the foresight to build this religious society on the unshakeable foundations of faith and family,” the younger Distasio said.

His father, who has been club president for 25 years, said the Chinese community that usually worships at the church which is now in the heart of Chinatown, has always been very welcoming.

“This has been going on for 125 years,” said Distasio. “This is a tradition, and it’s all about devotion to the Blessed Mother.”


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