When the three-ton statue is carried, Vinnie Occhiuto will be making the first lift.
The Glendale man, 55, has been named #1 Capo for the 124-year-old Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn – and it’s “a big honor,” he says.
Occhiuto, who was born in Brooklyn – a few blocks from the church, in fact — has been involved in the Feast since he was in his 20s, starting out as a lifter – one of 130 men who carry the 80-foot-tall, three-ton “Giglio,” which is Italian for “lilies.”
“I come from a very religious family,” said Occhiuto, who, at 5’8” and 175 pounds, told The Courier that his grandparents, born in Italy, belonged to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. His grandmother, he said, was a Lay Carmelite (he belongs now as well), and his father “was always involved in the community and Catholic charities.”
“I feel a connection to the parish and it comes from my upbringing,” said Occhiuto, who is a former president of the Holy Name Society, a Sir Knight of the Knights of Columbus Mount Carmel Council and a member of the Usher Society.
But for Occhiuto to be named #1 Capo at this juncture he said is truly exceptional – it comes about four years ahead of schedule.
He rose through the ranks, from lifter to lieutenant to apprentice Capo (appointed by the pastor) – to #1.
“Every two years I got a little bit closer,” he explained. “It’s very exciting, it took a long time.”
“It’s an amazing sight to see that structure carried by 100 men,” said Occhiuto. “And if it’s in your blood, it’s even more exciting.”
In fact, his own son Andrew, 23, is a lifter as well.
And to accompany the Giglio, an additional 120 men carry the life-size boat of St. Paulinus through the streets as part of the Feast, which is kicking off its 125th anniversary celebration.
“We take [the structures] off the sidewalk and then I control all the lifts for the day – we do it three times, and it’s a means of penance,” said Occhiuto.
He explained to The Courier that St. Paulinus is the patron saint of Nola, a town in Italy.
It was taken over, he said and all the young people were captured. One woman, whose only son was being held captive, went to Bishop Paulinus, who “offered himself in homage for the release of her son.”
Upon his return from captivity, St. Paulinus was met by joyous townspeople who held lilies as a sign of homage and welcome. This was cause for a great festival which became famous throughout Italy and was brought to Brooklyn by Italian immigrants 120 years ago.
The boat they carry today commemorates his passage home.
So the Feast, and the Giglio in particular, said Occhiuto, is “more than just a party in the street – there’s a big religious aspect.”
“I enjoy it and put my heart and soul into most things I do,” he said. “It’s an amazing feeling, something you never forget.”
So considering the importance of his role, is Occhiuto nervous?
“Absolutely,” he said. “Most men, when they start lifting, dream of being a Capo. What else in life do you plan 35 years for?”
Feast facts at a glance
The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel kicks off on Wednesday, July 6 and runs through Sunday, July 17 with “Giglio Sunday” on Sunday, July 10 at 1 p.m. at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church (275 North 8th Street at Havermeyer Street, Brooklyn).
On Giglio Sunday, an 11a.m. Mass will start the day’s activities followed by the traditional dancing of the Giglio at 1 p.m.
The Feast, 40 years older and second in size to San Gennaro, will have live entertainment nightly, vendors selling Italian specialties and international delicacies, parades, a bazaar with games, children’s rides and amusements.
To learn more, visit https://www.olmcfeast.com.