FORT LEE, N.J.– Rocco Palaia hasn't lived in Fort Lee for many years but he remains a devoted member of the Saint Rocco Italian-American Mutual Aid Society and a driving force behind its annual feast.
Palaia, 54, grew up in Cliffside Park and lived in Fort Lee, with the Saint Rocco Feast always being an annual focal point.
"As a kid it used to be three days, it was held the third week in August, and it always rained," Palaia laughed, explaining that Aug. 16 is the actual commemoration day of St. Rocco's death.
The Waldwick accountant said they've had better luck weather-wise since changing the feast to the first week in August. "In the 20 years I've been doing this we only had two rain-out days."
This year's feast is Wednesday, Aug. 3-Sunday, Aug. 7. Click here for a Daily Voice article about the festivities.
The draw of the feast is tradition, he said.
"A lot has changed in Fort Lee since this feast started 87 years ago. But people want it to continue. It doesn't matter what your ethnicity is. You don't have to be Catholic," Palaia said.
The changing times have seen handmade wooden platforms replaced by pop-up stages and fireworks push mortar shots to the wayside. A pizza eating contest is new in 2016 and a cannoli eating contest made an appearance last year.
The main event caps the festival on Sunday, Aug. 7, with the Saint Rocco Parade at 4 p.m.
The day starts with a 9 a.m. Mass, followed by the feast at 2 p.m. The parade will have a marching band and features 16-20 men carrying a 100-pound statue of St. Rocco on a 100-pound base, up and down the streets of Fort Lee.
It's a two-hour route and in the heat, Palaia said, "It's not easy."
As part of a European tradition, people will pin money on the statue that later will be donated to needy people in the community, Palaia said.
"We makes stop along the route to respect our forefathers and elders. We'll stop at deceased members' houses too," he said.
Two women in their mid-90s come out every year just to touch the statue.
"Family bring them to curb because they want to come to St. Rocco." he said. "We bring it as close to them as possible. It’s what we do — you have no idea how happy they are when they see it."
The feast is a way to keep old traditions alive. Palaia said he was the first person in his family born in America.
"My sister was a four-month-old baby when she came here. I speak and write Italian. But at home I have no one to speak it to. My wife doesn't speak it even though she’s part Italian," he said.
His sons, 26, 24 and 21, aren't members of the society but he hopes they will someday. He said when they were younger they helped with the stands and still look forward to attending every year.
St. Rocco became known as the patron saint of the sick and had a reputation as an overall miracle worker. He was greatly loved throughout Southern Italy and Sicily.
The Saint Rocco Italian-American Mutual Aid Society was founded in 1927 by Italian immigrants from the Italian region of Calabria Profits from the feast and other fundraising efforts are donated to people, organizations and communities in need.