Sure, at Little Italy’s annual festival honoring St. Anthony there are stacks of fresh, hot calzone and trays of delicious sausage and peppers. You’ll find fried dough, meatballs, pizza, cannoli, eggplant and chicken parmesan, pizzelle, and wine. There are games of chance, Italian stilt walkers, balloon artists, and even a roving gondolier.
While the fun and food are front of mind for most, the back story of the festival is pretty special, too.
The first Baltimore festival honoring St. Anthony took place in June 1904.
Four months earlier, just before 11 a.m. on February 7—an icy cold day with persistent bone-chilling winds—a lone spark ignited a fire in the John Hurst building on the corner of German Street & Hopkins Place (now Redwood and Sharp Streets). The fire grew fast. Shortly, the building was totally engulfed in flames. By noon, fueled by the wind, the fire had spread to nearby buildings and was rapidly spreading toward the east.
Fire companies from the District of Columbia, Pennsylvania, and New York rushed to Baltimore to join the battle, but the hungry flames devoured every building in their path as downtown Baltimore became an inferno.
According to the Promotion Center for Little Italy, “Towards evening, it was obvious Little Italy was in danger. Italian residents began to flee, taking whatever belongings they could carry. Yet many of them refused to leave their homes and belongings they had worked so hard to acquire.
“Instead, they gathered on the east bank of the Jones Falls and prayed for God to spare them from the flames. Someone in the crowd cried out, “Saint Anthony, protect us!” as others mimicked the cry. A few men rushed to Saint Leo’s Church and returned with the Saint Anthony statue and a vessel of holy water. Residents made a solemn vow—if their homes and beloved church were spared from the fire, they would hold an annual festival in honor of Saint Anthony.”
Nearly 30 hours later, at around 6 p.m. on Monday the wind changed direction and blew against the flames at the western edge of the Jones Falls.
As the fire began to die out and long before clean up operations began across the falls, the people of Saint Leo’s founded the Saint Anthony Society and started the celebration which began with a solemn Mass. Following the service, the neighborhood joined in a procession through the streets of Little Italy in gratitude and celebration. That first festival, 115 years ago became an annual procession and the Italian festival continues on today!
We’ll be there and you’ll probably find me near the wine vendors or the fried calamari stand.
The Feast of St. Anthony
St. Leo’s Church, Little Italy, Baltimore
June 1 & 2, 2019