By Ray Lamont
---- — The outdoor altar now dominates St. Peter’s Square, downtown businesses have their welcoming signs up, and the overhead street decorations along Commercial Street, Beach Court and the west end of Rogers Street suggest that something big is coming — and it is.
It’s Gloucester’s 86th St. Peter’s Fiesta, that annual salute to the patron saint of all fishermen and celebration of the city and its ethnic and marine economic roots.
And when Fiesta swings into full gear Wednesday evening, organizers are promising another year of poignant religious processions and ceremonies, family fun and entertainment with new kid-friendly ride bargains — and “zero tolerance” for the excessive drinking and trouble that has sometimes plagued the Fiestas of the past.
While one portion of Fiesta has been running for a week — the nine-day Novena of Prayer to St. Peter continues tonight and Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the American Legion Hall on Washington Street — the core of the festival opens Wednesday at 6 p.m. with the opening of the carnival, run by Salisbury-based Fiesta Shows.
Joe Novello, president of the St. Peter’s Fiesta Committee and a member of it since 1983, said he’s confident that this year’s event will be as good as ever.
“We always try to make it a family-oriented event — something that’s fun for everybody,” said Novello.
This year, in fact, Fiesta Shows is adding a deal of its own to reach out to kids and other midway riders. A number of downtown businesses and other Gloucester convenience stores have been given coupons offering $20 wristbands good for a full night of rides, not just on opening night, as in the past, but on Wednesday, Thursday and from 2 to 6 p.m. on Friday as well. The one-price ride wristbands will sell for $25 at Fiesta, Novello said.
Fiesta 2013 will also include many of the events that have marked Fiestas of recent years.
The 5k Fiesta Road Race is set for Thursday, while the official opening ceremonies, including the shift of St. Peter from the St. Peter’s Club to the place of honor on the Fiesta altar, are planned for Friday night. And all of that leads into the weekend’s sporting activities, the outdoor Mass and Procession of St. Peter through the city’s streets next Sunday morning, and the formal Blessing of the Fleet at the Fishermen’s Memorial next Sunday afternoon.
The athletic competitions include the seine boat races off Pavilion Beach and youth and adult soccer competitions that will once again be held at O’Maley Middle School, while Gloucester High School’s Newell Stadium undergoes its final stages of a $3.5 million renovation project geared toward its September reopening. And then there’s the Greasy Pole Walks, which begin Friday and continue Saturday, leading up to the grand finale, the walk of champions, Sunday at around 5 p.m.
This year’s stage entertainment listings include at least one new entry, with the Gloucester Jazz Band — an adult band that includes a number of musicians who formerly played with Gloucester High’s acclaimed Docksiders — performing next Sunday afternoon (see full Fiesta schedule, Page 3). But most of the acts will have familiar faces and sounds to those of Fiestas past.
There are aspects of past Fiestas, however, that organizers hope will not return. Those are the abusive drinking episodes and fights that have cast clouds over some Fiestas, most notably in 2010, when police made 27 arrests and had to break up a knife fight that had reportedly been sparked at the carnival and then erupted at Stage Fort Park.
For his part, Novello and other Fiesta officials have noted that much of the trouble linked to Fiesta has actually occurred after the grounds and carnival have closed, and has come off site, like the 2010 Stage Fort incident.
But Novello and Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello — who took his seat last August and is heading up patrols for his first Fiesta — promise extra steps this year to ensure the event will be enjoyable for all.
Gloucester police will once again be backed by additional personnel from Massachusetts State Police and the Essex County Sheriff’s Department, while Novello said the estimated $130,000 to $140,000 cost of putting on this year’s Fiesta includes additional security staff as well. All of the Fiesta Committee’s costs are covered through private donations, business sponsorships, and a smattering of fund-raising events.
“I know Fiesta is a great event, it’s a religious event, it’s turned into a fun community party,” Campanello said. “We want to support that. But to those who want to come to Gloucester for the specific purpose of getting drunk in the streets, and perhaps causing others to have a less enjoyable time, we are not going to tolerate that.
“That’s one of the things we’ll be looking for,” he added, “people who come into Gloucester and don’t respect the rights and wishes of others to enjoy Fiesta as it should be. We want to be sure everyone enjoys themselves responsibly, and that everyone is free and able to have an enjoyable time.”
Campanello and Novello said police officials have met with the Fiesta Committee to map plans for police and security coverage, and that all sides are on the same page. Novello said he’s been assured that Fiesta Shows has carried out background checks on those who will be working the carnival rides and games as well.
This year’s Fiesta also plays out amid a time when Gloucester’s own fishing fleet is under siege — not from an offshore or competitive threat, but from federal government regulations and catch constraints that have brought about an “economic disaster” formally recognized and declared by the Department of Commerce.
That will likely put added emphasis on religions Fiesta events such as the outdoor Mass and procession, and the Blessing of the Fleet next Sunday.
“People have to just have faith and hope that everything is going to work out for them,” Novello said of Gloucester’s fishermen, fishing families, and related waterfront business owners who also depend on fishermen’s landings and the city’s marine economy. There’s a lot to pray for this year.”
He noted, however, that Fiesta continues to play a role in the city’s core fabric.
“We continue to see people coming in from all over the country, all over the world, for Fiesta,” Novello said.
“The people in the younger generations who have moved out of town — they still all come home for Fiesta,” he said. “They come home for Christmas and the holidays, too, but they really seem to make it a point to come home for Fiesta. They see their family, they see their old friends, they go out, they have something to do.
“That’s what Fiesta is all about — families,” he said. “And that’s what we want it to be again this year.”
Times Editor Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3432, or at email@example.com.