Pride in Italian heritage is strong in Luzerne County, and one of the times it presents itself every year is the second Monday of October, when the country observes Columbus Day.
In fact, that pride is so strong, the Italian-American Association of Luzerne County takes things a step further, celebrating an entire Columbus Weekend. Events began Thursday with a dinner meeting at Best Western Genetti Hotel & Convention Center in Wilkes-Barre followed Friday by a Columbus Weekend Ceremony and Flag Raising at the county courthouse.
Festivities will continue Sunday morning with an Italian Mass at St. Joseph Marello Parish at Mount Carmel Church in Pittston and the 36th annual Columbus Day Banquet at Genetti’s Sunday evening.
So, why the fuss here over Christopher Columbus, especially when, according to usapublicholidays.com, there are few festivities around the nation on the federal holiday and some states removed the holiday from the list of paid holidays that state employees are allowed.
Well, aside from being credited with discovering the Americas in 1492, Columbus was an Italian.
“It’s like any other nationality that has a patron saint,” explained James Deice, president of the Italian-American Association of Luzerne County.
Comparing the practice to the Irish celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, Deice said commemorating Columbus Day is another way Italian-Americans honor their heritage.
“We’re proud of our culture and our heritage and we try to preserve it and keep it going for as long as we can.
Deice, 66, of Pittston, acknowledged his hometown has a reputation as an Italian-American stronghold in Luzerne County.
According to “The Ethnic Settlement of Three Communities in Luzerne County” by Garth Myers (1980), the populations in most Wyoming Valley towns began to wane as the local coal industry began to wither.
But in Pittston, 1900 to 1940 was “a boomtown era” brought about by an influx of Italian immigrants, Myers wrote.
Stephanie Longo, in her book, “Images of America — Italians of Northeastern Pennsylvania,” writes that Italians began migrating to the United States after the “Risorgimento” — the movement to unite Italy under a single ruler during the second half of the 19th century.
“Upon unification, residents (in the Naples area) found themselves in a heavy economic crisis,” Longo writes. Around the same time, southern Italians suffered a variety of environmental disasters such as mudslides and earthquakes, and pestilence destroyed more than 750,000 acres of vineyards.
Italian immigrants suffered discrimination after their long hard journey here.
Longo notes that the sisters of St. Lucy’s Parish in Scranton received an anonymous note in 1907 that stated, “We give you and the priest [Fr. Dominic Landro] three days to leave, but if you refuse, after that the house and the church will be blown up with dynamite.”
Much of the discrimination Italian immigrants suffered was thought to be a result of the mistrust of the Welsh, Irish and Germans who preceded them here, because of their different dress, worship and culture, Longo notes.
And it is those very traditions that local Italian-Americans continue to celebrate today with Columbus Day celebrations and other Italian-American festivals throughout the year.
In Luzerne County, Italian is the fourth largest ancestry, with 17.2 percent of county residents claiming it. Polish comes in No. 1 at 23.5 percent, followed by Irish at 20 percent and German at 18.7 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.