GLOUCESTER - For more than 80 years, a life-size statue of St. Peter has stood in Gloucester. Every June, during a fiesta named for the patron saint of fishermen, some approach the statue with prayers, tears, and hopes that lives will change if their appeals are heard.
In the onetime fishing capital of the world, the St. Peter's Fiesta - a five-day festival where faith, family, and celebration are emphasized - brings thousands of people into Gloucester's downtown.
But over the last decade, as the fishing industry has nearly collapsed and the fiesta has taken on commercial sponsors - such as liquor companies - some wonder if more people see the event as a reason to party than to pray.
"They took God out of it," says Rosario Piraino, a retired fisherman and fish plant owner.
Reverence versus revelry became the center of a public debate this month in the heart of the Fort neighborhood, where the statue stands during the fiesta each year. At issue was a request by a small microbrewery, which applied for a permit to serve beer during the fiesta. With several bars within 100 yards of the Fort, neighbors opposed the request, saying there was already too much alcohol at the fiesta. The request was eventually approved by the city, but hard feelings still linger.
"We've got enough drinking going on during the fiesta," says Vito Demetri, who lives on Beach Court in the Fort, where the fiesta started as a modest celebration in 1927. Demetri lives across from Cape Ann Brewing Co., a microbrewery that has been making beer in the city for four years. The lobsterman says neighbors don't want to celebrate youth-oriented, time-honored events - such as pie-eating and egg-throwing contests - with a brewery as a backdrop.
But Jeremy Goldberg, co-owner of the microbrewery, says he needs the exposure for his business to grow. He says the conflict touches on the neighbors' desire to retain a close-knit identity even as the city eyes the coast-lined neighborhood as a center of economic growth. Mayor Carolyn Kirk says a deal is almost complete to bring a major hotel to an old factory site just a few yards from the brewery; she also wants to rezone that side of the harbor to bring more businesses and tourists.
For Goldberg, the fiesta is a way to show locals and tourists - who number as many as 5,000 each day during the festival - a slice of the city's new economy. "We want to be a starting point for the new Gloucester," says Goldberg, whose pub, which does not have a city permit to operate year-round, includes rocking chairs and an area rug. "We're showcasing our product, and making beer is a form of art, just like cooking is a form of art."
Sicilian immigrants started the fiesta 81 years ago as a tribute to St. Peter and for the fishermen who worked in the dangerous waters of Cape Ann. In its early years, women held a novena for the statue, singing songs of tribute while sitting in chairs on sidewalks in the Fort. As the fiesta grew, other traditions were added, such as an outdoor Mass, a statue procession throughout the downtown, and a greasy pole contest - in which men traverse a petroleum-covered telephone pole with the hope of grabbing a flag and earning bragging rights for the year.
For much of the last century, the fiesta was supported by fishermen. But in recent decades as the fishing industry has declined, the celebration has become commercialized, adding sponsors and a carnival in order to continue. Local businesses also have found ways to make money on it, with some holding air-guitar competitions and wet T-shirt contests.
Some say the merging of religious and secular and the replacement of fishermen with corporate sponsors has changed the true intention of the fiesta.
"I think it's nothing but a big drunk party," says John Favazza, 80. He sat at the bar of the House of Mitch, where he drinks a beer every day with Piraino, his childhood friend, who is also 80.
"The kids really don't know what the heck it's all about. It's religious, and they've gotten away from that."
Out on Pavilion Beach, in the shadow of the greasy pole, Mike Cain, 20, and Dustin Kiwani, 21, did not disagree with Favazza's assessment. "I don't think it's religious at all," says Kiwani. "For me, it's just Gloucester tradition."
Cain says he did not know the history of the event, or its religious significance. For Cain, the fiesta is about the lore of walking the pole, attending the carnival, drinking, and flirting with girls. "It's one big party," he said.
Near the outdoor altar, Anthony Saputo, a member of the committee that organizes the fiesta, acknowledged that the flavor of the festival has changed. But he believes the religious aspect of the celebration - such as the outdoor Mass - is still as strong as ever. "I love the religious aspect of it more than anything in the world," says Saputo, a former greasy pole contest winner.
At a former TV appliance store next to the outdoor altar, Rosie Verga sat and pondered the fiesta's future. Verga's grandfather, Salvatore Favazza, purchased the statue 81 years ago. Since 1976, she's organized the nine-day novena that's held before the fiesta.
Verga says that the intent of people's prayers has changed, but that their faith is intact. "When we started, we prayed first of all for fishermen. Now we pray for children, we pray for peace in the world, we pray for the economy," says Verga, who along with the other women, sits with rosary beads and recites devotional prayers during the novena.
"It still is spiritual and there are so many people who come up to that altar and just cry, and say, 'St. Peter, we pray to you; hear our prayers,' " she says.
Verga does worry about the novena's future and would like more younger people to attend.
"I've been doing this for 32 years," she says. "I'm always hinting for somebody to take over. I'm 75 and I can't be doing this when I'm 80. I'm hoping somebody takes over."
Steven Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.