Crabtree festival rings in a new century


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The parishioners of St. Bartholomew Parish in the Unity Township village of Crabtree know how to throw a fireworks spectacular. They should -- they have a century of experience. The pyrotechnics are a highlight of the annual Our Lady of Mount Carmel Festival which is celebrating the 101st anniversary of its founding. The free festival runs today through Sunday.

In 1911, a group of Italian Catholic immigrants working for a local coal and coke company established a festival to honor the Virgin Mary inspired by those held in their hometowns in Italy, Rev. Justin Matro said.

Father Matro, who has been St. Bartholomew pastor since April, is a Benedictine from Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, who also teaches in the Archabbey Seminary. His grandparents and parents were born in Crabtree, and his great grandfather, Nick Matro, was among the festival founders.

The parish was ethnically diverse, comprising Slovak, Polish, German and Italian families, Father Matro said, and soon after its initial year everyone was involved in organizing the festival. It's been held annually since 1911 with the exception of the war years of 1917 and 1941-45.

Over the decades, activities have expanded to reflect the times and now include a bike blessing, 5K race and a mass with polka music.

The festival begins at 5 p.m. today with a Classic Car Cruise. The Blessing of the Bikes -- motorized and not -- will be given at 8 p.m. The East Coast Turnaround band plays from 7 to 9:30 p.m. and the evening closes at 10 p.m. with a candlelight procession on the church grounds.

The grounds reopen at 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday with carnival booths and games. Food booths will include fare from local eateries Carbone's, Rizzo's, Bardine's Country Smokehouse and Long's Catering.

Friday at 5 p.m. the Eric Barchiesi Combo performs followed at 7 p.m. by the Desperadoes. A 5K race and 2-mile walk will also be held at 7 p.m. Saturday the polka music outdoor mass begins at 4 p.m., preceding Ray Jay and the Carousels at 5:15 p.m. and Saddle Up at 7:30 p.m. Fireworks begin at 10:30 p.m. and last about a half hour (no rain date).

Fireworks parking is at a premium, and even handicap spaces fill, Father Matro cautioned, and advises visitors to arrive early.

On Sunday, Mass will be held at 10 a.m. followed by a procession along Route 119 (which will be closed to traffic) and a heritage dinner (tickets sold in advance only).

"For the outside world, the heart of the festival is the fireworks. For the parish, the heart of the festival is the mass and procession," Father Matro said.

The procession honors Our Lady of Mount Carmel and includes members of parish organizations, brightly painted carts filled with flowers and children dressed as Italian peasants. Men carry the parish statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and children strew flower petals along the route.

Homespun "wheelbarrow shrines" are welcome, Father Matro said, "but they have to be devotional in nature." They may incorporate family pictures and history he said, noting that many families have participated for several generations. A spirited fireworks battery salute is held at the old fairgrounds before the procession returns to the church.

"Religious processions are common in most Catholic countries," Father Matro said, "but in Italy they're a way of life."

The devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel may be traced to St. Simon stock, a 13th century monk of the Carmelite order. The Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to him while he was on pilgrimage to Mount Carmel, a place of prophets according to the Old Testament. But the devotion "as we know it today" probably dates to the 18th century, Father Matro said.

The festival attracts visitors from around the region, but also from out of state, said Carbone's manager Natalie Stefanick. "It's a big homecoming. People schedule their vacations so they can come back for the festival."

Years ago the fireworks began at midnight and drew 10,000 to 15,000 viewers, Ms. Stefanick said. It would take until 3 or 4 a.m. for the traffic to clear up and Carbone's stayed open to feed the firemen, policemen and fireworks employees who had to work. Starting the fireworks earlier made everyone's hours more manageable, including tired festivalgoers, she said.

Details: www.stbartholomewcrabtree.org or 724-834-0709.

neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland

Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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