When I first moved to Carroll Gardens 13 years ago, one of the first things that made me realize that I was living among a particular people from a particular place was the eerie, Felliniesque Procession of Santa Maria Addolorata.
This—well, I don't want to say "parade"; it's not that kind of joyous thing—this event takes place on the first Sunday in September after Labor Day, starting at St. Stephen's Church on Carroll and Hicks and then slowly plodding its way through the neighborhood to the sounds of a mournful brass band (complete with tuba) and the incantations of hundreds of middle-aged and elderly women dressed in what seems to be the same conservative, jet-black dress with a white sash around the neck.
A group of select men hoist on their shoulders the largish statue of Santa Maria Addolorata. She is the patron saint of Mola di Bari, a coastal Italian town from which many old-time Carroll Gardeners hail. Maria is dressed in a silver crown and a long black dress with gold brocade. She has a terribly stricken look on her face—probably because a sword is piercing her heart. People pin money to the statue, which others stuff dollars in wooden boxes carted about by various church ladies. The latter will hand you a postcard with a prayer written out in Italian on the back.
The procession is stately and creepy. There are several little girls dressed up like Maria. And a man at front ponderously bangs a bass drum. It's funereal, basically. The first time I ever saw it, I shuddered at the dour solemnity of it. My wife still refuses to watch it; it weirds her out. But I have an odd affection for it. It's so like something I might encounter unexpectedly in an ancient Italian hill town.
To know how ingrained the ceremony and the saint are in Carroll Gardens life, just know that one of the major stops on Maria's route is the 76th police precinct on Union Street. At this address, the statue of Maria is turned to face the precinct bigs and St. Stephen's priest as they stand in full dress and at attention on the precinct steps. Whether she is blessing the cops or addressing her troops, I have not been able to figure out.