March is the month I like to recycle my “St. Patrick was Italian” column and remind you that Italo-Irish author, Tomie de Paola’s delightful book for children “Patrick- Patron Saint of Ireland” is available at the S.F. Museo Italo-Americano Gift Shop.
The first St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. was held in Boston in 1734. By stretching things a bit, you can correctly state that “St. Patrick was Italian”.
Patrick’s parents were Romans. The Roman’s ruled England at the time. Calpurnius, Patrick’s father, was a high Roman diplomat living in England, but a Roman citizen.
Patrick, some say, was born in Scotland or England around the year 385 A.D. Roman cities in England had ships and beautiful houses, so Patrick lived the good life for a while.
Across the sea in Ireland (Eire), things were not so good. Tribal kings were constantly feuding, and in the year 400 A.D. a tribal king (Niall) attacked England. He took thousands of prisoners, including Patrick for slaves. Soon the rich little Roman kid was forced to herd pigs and sheep, just a poor little slave boy far from home.
Patrick was taken to Northern Ireland and sold to another tribal king named Meliucc. Meliucc and his family were kind to Patrick, and their children were good company. Still Patrick (Maewyn) was alone in a strange land, only 15 years old. He did not know the language; he didn’t know if his family was still alive. Patrick slept in a mud hut and was a swineherd.
At 21 years old, after six years as a slave, he ran away Walking many miles to the sea, he found a ship that took him back to England. By now, the Romans had been chased out; they were no longer the rulers, and the country was in ruins.
Patrick sailed across the channel and wandered through Europe, and then on to Rome, and found that by the year 410 A.D., the center of all Roman power had been conquered as well. His past was really dead, so he decided to go back to England to think, pray and live very quietly there.
While in prayer, he felt certain that God was calling him back to Ireland, to bring all those tribes together and make Ireland a Christian land. But first, Patrick went to Rome and studied religion there.
After many years of doing great work in Rome, Patrick was sent to Ireland to spread the message of the Gospel because he was able to speak Celtic and so was able to communicate with the Irish. In the year 432 A.D. Pope Celestine made Patrick a Bishop and named him “Patricius”. Now, Bishop Patricius sailed for Ireland. The Irish people were not interested in Christianity and tried to stone him to death.
The Bishop and his men fled and found shelter for the night in a barn near the shore. The barn belonged to a tribal king named Dichu. He thought the Bishop and his men were robbers and wanted to kill them.
Patrick held out his hand and smiled, and a golden aura shone on his face. Dichu put down his weapon, his fierce dog stopped growling (according to legend), and Dichu became the first Christian in Ireland and the barn, the first church.
Patrick’s mission wasn’t an easy one. Druidism (an ancient Celtic religion) was widely practiced in Ireland, and many Druids would rather have killed Patrick than convert; he and his followers were imprisoned and sentenced to death many times. But Patrick’s faith in God was strong, and he knew he could keep going, “spreading God’s name everywhere with confidence and without fear”. Patrick preached all over Ireland, using a shamrock to explain the Trinity.
Patrick showed them a shamrock, like a three-leafed clover. Patrick explained the idea of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost (if no shamrocks were handy, he used the water, ice and steam idea).
When Patrick traveled all over Ireland, he always had a drummer with him. When he arrived at a village, the drummer would drum, and the people would come from their houses to listen to him (as in drumming up business).
As a man of God, Patrick was known for his humility and disinterest in material wealth. He wouldn’t accept gifts from admirers, and often retreated in quiet prayer. By the time he died in 461, Patrick had converted virtually all of Ireland to Christianity. Today, the shamrock is Ireland’s national ‘flower’, and as more and more tribal kings and their people became Christians, they came together to worship and be united as a country. Bishop Patricius drummed the snakes out of Ireland and into the sea (according to legend), and built hundreds of churches. When he died on March 17 (between 461 and 482 A.D.), the Pope declared him a saint and had him buried on church grounds in Downpatrick, Ireland. In the U.S., St. Patrick’s Day means party time. In Ireland, it means Holy Time.
In Italy, Father’s Day is celebrated on March 19th, the Feast of St. Joseph, foster father of Jesus and husband of Mary. “La Festa di San Giuseppe” honors the day when the prayers of the people of Sicily were answered, and they were sent rain during a severe drought when many people were dying of starvation because there had been no rain to nourish the crops that sustained life for most of the people on the island. They had prayed to St. Joseph, their patron, for relief from the terrible famine that gripped the island and when the skies opened up, sending down the life giving water, the people rejoiced. To show their gratitude, they prepared a table with a special assortment of foods they had harvested. After paying honor to St. Joseph, they distributed the food to the less fortunate.
The first St. Joseph Altar set up on the Island of Sicily was a small one. But as time went on and the tradition took hold, the creative spirit of the Italians caused the altars to grow larger and more ornate. Today, the artistic quality of the breads, cookies and pastries, which are baked in such shapes as chalices, staffs and pyramids, often rivals the exquisite flavor of these food offerings. Though Sicilian immigrants introduced the custom to America, the celebration is not confined to any nationality.
Rather, it has become a public event which its devoted participants embrace for a host of private and personal reasons. The feast is alternately a source of petition and thanksgiving. Many kinds of vegetable minestras, very thick soups, are prepared and served at this celebration, but no cheese is eaten on St. Joseph’s Day. This is to remind us that our people were too poor to have cheese. The spaghetti is sprinkled with a traditional mixture of toasted dry bread crumbs when fresh sardines and fennel sauce is used, as in pasta con sarde. Another reason that the traditional Sicilian Pasta con Sarde topping is made of breadcrumbs (Mudrica, or Mudriga) is that it is said to be a reminder of the sawdust St. Joseph created as a working carpenter.
MUDRICA OR MUDRIGA (bread crumbs for Pasta)
Grate stale bread and sift to remove large crumbs. Heat iron skillet on very low fire; add bread crumbs and cook until crumbs are golden brown. Stir constantly so crumbs do not burn. After crumbs are brown, remove from fire and add sugar according to taste. A gift of a blessed Fava bean is one of the customs associated with the St. Joseph Altar. It is a reminder that during the drought, the fava bean originally grown for animal fodder thrived and helped sustain the starving farmers and their families.