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Feast of St. Rocco blends faith, food in Glen Cove community

A large crowd walks with the statue of

A large crowd walks with the statue of St. Rocco during the traditional procession of the patron Saint Rocco through the streets of Glen Cove on Sunday, July 31, 2016. Credit: Steve Pfost

Josephine Melfi-Piliero walked more than a mile through the streets of Glen Cove on Sunday, shoes in hand, singing words of praise for St. Rocco, patron saint of the sick.

Melfi-Piliero was one of dozens who flooded the North Shore neighborhood for a procession honoring the saint, a 14th century healer who is known for tending to those with the bubonic plague.

“This is our devotion,” said Melfi-Piliero, 31, who has joined the procession since childhood and walked barefoot to give thanks for her recent pregnancy. “It brings people together.”

The procession is the focal point of the Feast of St. Rocco, a festival held every year by the Church of St. Rocco in Glen Cove. The annual event, 41 years in the making, features six days of rides, games and food, the latter earning it a reputation as the “best feast in the East.”

And while the traditional Italian spread of sausage and peppers, lasagna and meatballs draws thousands, the procession is the highlight for dozens of church parishioners, community members and even some religious pilgrims from across Long Island.

“This is an old tradition,” said Angie Colangelo, 51, chairperson of the festival. “We do it for the good of our church.”

The procession, lead by an Italian marching band, travels through the residential area between Cedar Swamp Road and Nassau Avenue with a St. Rocco statue.

This year, more than 50 people followed the figure, singing in Italian and pinning offerings — paper bills, gold chains and jewelry — to the statue’s flowing garments in hopes the saint will grant their intercessions. As the caravan moved along its route, people left their homes, and joined the group of devotees. The Rev. Elias Carr, the parish pastor, stopped to bless the sick and homebound with a relic of St. Rocco.

For Yolanda Ruthkowski, 90, of Glen Cove, the celebration is personal. Her parents fought to erect the church in 1937 and create a place for Italian families to worship, she said. She’s worshipped at St. Rocco’s since its establishment and volunteered at the feast since its inception.

Ruthkowski is one of many “nonnas,” or Italian grandmothers, who spend months preparing the food that they then serve during the feast and following the procession. But for her and many others, the festivities mean more than just good food, she said.

“It’s all right here,” she said, gesturing to her heart. “This feast . . . [is] my heart and soul.”

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