SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ -- This year, the St. Bart's Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary in Scotch Plains. Longtime residents will recall that is was based on previous events hosted at the Italian American Club that faded when founding pastor Father Nelligan died.
In 1974, John Appezzato met with Monsignor Francis Reinbold to gain his blessing to start the St. Bart's Festival, which benefits the church and UNICO, the largest Italian American service organization in the U.S. UNICO spread the word among its membership.
This week, a number of the original organizers met with TAPintoScotchPlains-Fanwood to talk about the early days of the annual Italian festival and how it has grown over the years.
"The idea was not to make money, but to have a community event and celebrate Italian heritage," said Joe Vetere, Sr., 92, one of the original organizers of the festival, which takes place Friday through Monday of Labor Day Weekend on the grounds of St. Bartholomew Church (2032 Westfield Ave.) in Scotch Plains.
"It was successful from the very beginning," said Renato Biribin, 74, who helped charter the Scotch Plains chapter of UNICO in 1973. "The money we have raised has supported scholarship awards, Columbus Day activities, and mental health programs, among other causes."
"The women were in charge of all of the cooking," said Jack Ley, whose grandmother Albina Appezzato, made legendary meatballs and pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans soup). "My grandmother, Eileen DiNizo, Rose DiQuollo -- they started making meatballs weeks in advance of the feast. The food was sitting in freezers all over the place until the festival started."
Ginger Rachko, who worked for years at Fred's Catering, said her boss opened his kitchen to the ladies and let them use his mixers, slicers, ovens and other equipment. He also let them use his freezers until the food was to be defrosted. For years, volunteers set up tables in the parking lot outside the church to slice peppers and onions for the sausage sandwiches. They produced about 4,000 meatballs -- all made from scratch.
Today, because of the sheer volume of food needed at the feast and because of health department regulations, the organizers of the festival contract outside vendors to handle the food. The vendors pay a fee to rent the space and then keep what they take in, although many of them donate back.
Organizers estimate that over the past 40 years, the festival has raised more than $1 million for The St. Bartholomew Church, UNICO, and St. Bart's School.
The four-day festival takes an army of volunteers -- about 350 per night -- to handle ticket sales, set up, clean up, and anything else that is needed. There has always been a mass in Italian, followed by a procession honoring St. Bartholomew and St. Nicholas di Bari, the patron saint of the town of Montazzoli, Italy, on Saturday evening of the festival. Music performances are a relatively new addition. The event is expected to draw more than 30,000 visitors this year.
"I've been involved for 10 years now. People are passionate about it," said Paul Raphael, who handles much of the marketing and promotion of the festival. "There's always a new group to take over and move it forward. No one has ever said, 'You can't do it this way.' They let us go and use our own creativity."
People who have left Scotch Plains and Fanwood come back each year. They now organize via social media to arrange meeting times and places.
"It's the ultimate Italian tradition, La Famiglia. That's what it's all about," Biribin added.
- Friday, August 29th (4:30 to 10:30 p.m.)
- Saturday, August 30st (4:30 to 10:30 p.m.)
- * Mass in Italian Celebrated by Coadjutor Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda at 5 p.m., followed by procession
- Sunday, August 31st (4:30 to 10:30 p.m.)
- Monday, Labor Day, September 1st (1:00 to 8:00 p.m.)