Santa Rosalia: the Saint, the Festival, and Monterey's Sicilian Fisherman

Santa Rosalia is the adopted patron saint of Monterey’s Sicilian fisherman. Each year, in the fall, the statue of Santa Rosalia is removed from its pedestal in the old San Carlos Church and paraded to the water front for the blessing of the fleet. This tradition began with the original Isola delle Femmine immigrants and continues to this day.

Who was Santa Rosalia?

Rosalia (1130-1166) was the daughter Count Sinibaldo della Quisquina.  As a young woman, Rosalia abandoned her family’s comfortable lifestyle and retreated to a cavern on Monte Pelligrino. Here she lived as a hermit dedicating her life to prayer.

According to tradition, a ship from North Africa carrying the bubonic plague landed in Palermo on May 7, 1624.  The epidemic that ensued caused the deaths of about one third of Palermo's populace.  The epidemic raged on until the middle of July when a young man, Matteo Bonello, had a vision in which Rosalia appeared to him and directed him to her cave.  She instructed him to retrieve her bones and to carry them to the four corners of the city. Bonello found the cave, Rosalia's bones and a rock with Rosalia's name on it.  He carried the bones to the city and Palermo's horrible plague was over.  

Santa Rosalia and the City of Palermo 

Santa Rosalia became the patron saint of the City of Palermo.  In fact, she is generally revered throughout Sicily. Every July 15-17, Palermo holds a festival  to commemorate the ending of the plague and to honor their patron saint. The annual festivities are elaborate and attract people from great distances. The Commune of Isola delle Femmine is a mere 15 kilometers from Palermo. No doubt, many of the original Isola delle Femmine immigrants participated in Palermo’s annual revelry.

Origins of Monterey’s Santa Rosalia Festival 

Monterey’s Santa Rosalia Festival was the brainchild of Francesca (Ferranti) Giamona (pictured below left). Perhaps recalling childhood memories of the Palermo Festival, or because of the affinity most Sicilians have for Santa Rosalia, she recruited the help of Giovanna Balbo, Rosa Ferrante and Domenica Enea. With financing from Francesca’s uncle, Pietro "Pete" Ferranti, the four women launched the first tribute to Santa Rosalia and the blessing of the fleet.

The early Festivals consisted primarily of an elaborate procession from the church to the wharf. The procession was usually led by young girls dressed in white to represent angels. Following the "angels" was an Italian-style band usually from the Italian Catholic Federation in Pittsburg. Behind the band came the fishermen carrying the statue of Santa Rosalia on their shoulders, and later on a float. And, finally, came the congregation and the community. This group was usually led by the older women of the community dressed in traditional Sicilian black singing hymns.

Over the years, the Festival has taken many forms. At times referred to as the Fisherman's Festival and other times the Santa Rosalia Festival, the festivities have included parades, dances, outdoor Masses, and festival queens. But, no matter what else may have been included, the Festival has always concluded with the procession to the water front and the blessing of the fleet.