Spirits Rising: Westbury Tradition Celebrates 109th Year

Glen Ullo (left with sash), president of Maria SS Dell’Assunta Society, assists other Society members in carrying the statue of the Blessed Mother from St. Brigid’s to begin the procession. (Photos by Michael Lettera)

Feast Of Faith, Family, Fun

Wherever Italians gathered during the decades of their great migration to our shores (1880-1920), they brought old country traditions with them.

St. Brigid’s was packed during the annual Mass of the Assumption of Mary on Aug. 15. Seated closest to the aisle is Mary Ann DiGuiseppi, treasurer and past president of the Maria SS Dell’assunta Society.

In the religious realm, the most significant was the feast to honor the village or city’s patron saint’s day. The Saint Gennaro Feast in Manhattan’s Little Italy is perhaps the most famous of these. The “Little Italys” of Cleveland and Chicago and other big cities also hold annual celebrations of this uniquely Italian import that draw huge crowds.

Westbury is no exception. The Naples area was well-represented in what was to become the 11590 zip code. In 1910, a group of Westbury residents wanted to start a feast. The only problem was that they hailed from three different villages and could not agree on whose patron saint should have the honor of a celebration.

Father William McGinnis, then pastor at St. Brigid’s, came up with the Solomonic solution of having the Italian community honor the Virgin Mary on the Feast of the Assumption—Aug. 15 in the Catholic calendar.

Elena Slezak, 98, seated, was surprised at the end of the Mass when Pastor Anthony Stanganelli recognized her for many years of service to the Maria SS Dell’Assunta Society. She is the oldest living member. She is pictured with daughters Kathy Slezak Daws (left), who traveled from her home in Australia to celebrate the Mass with her mother, and Chris Lyons (right) from St. Augustine, FL.

On that date in 1910, Westbury saw its first celebration, and its organizers went on to found the Maria S.S. Dell’Assunta Society in Westbury on July 11, 1911 to carry on the vital organizing and fundraising. The Society, with the feast and other fundraisers, has donated to countless causes in the Westbury area over the decades.

The founders passed on decades ago, but many of their descendants continue their association with the Society and its biggest event, the five-day celebration of the Feast of the Ascension held from Aug. 14-18. The 109th edition recently wound up on the grounds of St. Brigid’s/Our Lady of Hope School on Maple Avenue.

The feast closely follows the old country template, in which celebrations associated with the saint comprise the major event of the year. First there is a Mass in the saint’s (in this case the Blessed Mother’s) honor, followed by a procession in which the statue is carried out of the church and into the streets. The faithful can pray to the likeness and also pin money to clothing wrapped around the statue. Cultural and musical acts are hired to entertain, while Italy’s rich cuisine, games, rides and fireworks are also thrown into the mix.

“You have to give back to the community and serve and do good for others.”
— Dell’Assunta Society President Glen Ullo

“It’s a beautiful thing that we do,” Society President and feast chair Glen Ullo told The Westbury Times. “It’s a beautiful organization and we do it every year for the Blessed Mother.”

He praised the organizing committee—co-chairs Dominic Buffolino and John Buffolino, treasurers Pearl Genzale and Laura DiGuiseppi, Mass organizer Lenny Aloisio (past president) and parade marshals Aloisio, Frank Ciardullo and Joan Fusco—for the hard work needed to pull off the event.

“It takes a lot, but you know what? We’re a good bunch of people and enjoy doing it,” Ullo went on. “If the community keeps coming out and enjoying the feast, we make it for them. And they give a little something towards it. It helps out. And community is where it’s at.”

He added, “We have to realize that life is more than working hard. You have to give back to the community and serve and do good for others.”

A smattering of women who were native speakers (or first/second generation who learned the local Neapolitan dialects at home) sang traditional songs to the Madonna and intoned the Hail Mary in their native tongue.

Ullo noted that some of the Society’s younger women were starting to learn Italian.

“We’d like to keep the tradition going,” Ullo said. “That’s why we need the young people to join us as we continue the tradition.”

Two such young people were flag bearers Peter Buffolino and Antonio Razzano. Neither, they told the Times, joined because it was a family thing or they were expected to.

“I enjoy being a part of the Society,” Buffolino said, “It’s a way of giving back to the community.”

“Westbury’s Italian societies have a long history of summer feasts, and they are some of the community’s annual hallmark events,” Westbury Mayor Peter Cavallaro said. “The Dell’Assunta Society just celebrated the 109th anniversary of its summer feast. As a child, I remember eagerly awaiting for the feasts to start each year, and I have to admit that I still can’t resist visiting the zeppole stand. This feast, and the many other ethnic and religious celebrations that take place in Westbury throughout the year, highlight in a beautiful way the rich diversity that we enjoy in the community. Through these events, our residents get to experience a little bit of all of the cultures that make their home here.”

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Frank Rizzo is a journalist at Anton Media Group. With decades of experience in the industry, he is exceptionally equipped to cover local politics, business and other topics that matter to readers.

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