Triumph of the spirit

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This year’s Columbus Day celebration in Chicago might not have been the biggest ever, but it certainly was the most remarkable. Absolutely everything conspired against it, from the slow pace of city approval to forecasts of rain and fears of protests that kept some on the sidelines.

But permits were finally issued; a promotional blitz ensued; and floats, cars, bands and other marching units were rallied in weeks instead of months. On Oct. 11, a lone bus arrived at Casa Italia along with a gray dawn to shepherd the intrepid to morning Mass at Our Lady of Pompeii Shrine.

Fr. Richard Fragomeni delivered a rousing sermon, as always, and after the services, a fanfare of trumpets ushered the faithful from the shrine to the spot in Arrigo Park where the statue of Columbus once so proudly stood.

There, Elmwood Park President Skip Saviano emceed a stirring salute to Italian-American veterans, and the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America solemnly laid a wreath in honor of the for-now vanquished explorer.

The Knights of Columbus, the queen and her court, and youthful portrayers of Columbus and Queen Isabella added color and pageantry to the ceremony.

Meanwhile, a second round of buses headed downtown from the Casa as volunteers wrestled with high winds to transform the Festival Center into party central. Bus riders, churchgoers and hundreds more converged on State Street for a parade that unfolded against all odds and without a hitch.

ABC7 cameras rolled, and the Sanfilippo family, which chaired the parade, looked on with pride as that great street morphed into a sea of red, white and green.

Music flowed from floats graced by performers of local and national renown, and more than a dozen ethnic groups joined in the procession, sending a strong message of multiethnic support to the seats of power.

The first drops of rain held off until the last float passed the finish line, and most participants made it to the shelter of Casa Italia before the skies unleashed a storm of biblical proportions.

No amount of bad weather, however, could have dampened the spirits of the post-parade partygoers, who reveled in the free food and libations orchestrated by Domenico Gambino and the entertainment and inspirational words provided by Ron Onesti.

The JCCIA president had a hard time making himself heard over the din of the downpour on the Festival Center’s tin roof, but the deluge magically abated just in time for the introduction of a most unexpected and special guest.

At the high point of his presentation, Onesti walked the celebration into the rain-soaked field north of the Festival Center, where a towering figure enshrouded in a brown tarp stood. Onesti removed the tarp with a flourish to reveal the statue of Columbus that had been removed from Arrigo Park in the dead of night more than a year ago.

Onesti had arranged for the statue’s temporary release from bondage, had the spray paint that desecrated it covered with an easily removable coating, and had it transported via flatbed to its position of honor on the Casa grounds.

The crowd, as you can well imagine, went wild at the sight of their cherished icon, so gloriously restored. Film crews from all the major local news stations recorded this most improbable of moments in this most unlikely of celebrations.

Though buffeted by storms, the day wound to a close without a hint of protest. For the time being, the statue has once again been remanded to the custody of the Chicago Park District while the JCCIA’s legal team continues to negotiate its permanent release.

Make no mistake: These won’t be the last tempests to batter Columbus or the day and parade celebrated in his honor. But for one shining moment, none of that mattered, thanks to the indomitable spirit of our community and its leaders.

The above appears in the December 2021 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

About Paul Basile

Paul Basile has been the editor of Fra Noi for a quarter of a century. Over that period, he and his dedicated family of staff members and correspondents have transformed a quaint little community newspaper into a gorgeous glossy magazine that is read and admired across the nation. They also maintain a cluster of national and local websites and are helping other major metropolitan areas launch their own versions of Fra Noi.

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