Omaha's Santa Lucia Festival started modestly enough some 89 years ago when Grazia Bonafede Caniglia, a native of Carlentini, Sicily, went door-to-door in her South Omaha neighborhood, asking people if they'd like to put a little money toward bringing a residual memory of the old country to the streets of their new home.
It wasn't hard. On a wall at Santa Lucia Hall at 7th and Pierce streets in a section of town known as Omaha's Little Italy, hangs a parchment bearing the names of dozens of donors who helped ensure their patron would continue to provide her blessing even as they carved out a new existence thousands of miles from their native soil.
Today, some 70 percent of Omahans claiming Sicilian ancestry can trace their roots back to Carlentini, where Santa Lucia — St. Lucy in the English rendering of the martyr's name — has been feted for nearly 400 years and, as such, the celebration attending Santa Lucia in Omaha each June is the annual highlight of the Italian-American experience in the community and the focal point of a new documentary which will have its world premiere Aug. 9 at 7:30 p.m. in Witherspoon Concert Hall in the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha.
“It's been a labor of love,” said Jennifer Mandolfo Carey, a third-grade teacher at Walnut Creek Elementary School and executive producer on the film, entitled “Devoti.” “It sounds corny, but growing up Italian and being around this festival pretty much all my life, it's a big part of who I am and who a lot of Italians in Omaha are. If we don't get these stories now, we may not ever get them.”
“Devoti” takes as its subjects the stories and experiences of dozens of interviewees and pictures and movies of days gone by — hundreds of hours of footage condensed into a 90-minute film.
The documentary's own story started three years ago when Mandolfo Carey, along with fellow executive producer Mike DiGiacomo, invited a photojournalist named Pete Soby to come to the Santa Lucia Festival, now held at Lewis and Clark Landing north of downtown Omaha.
Soby, who worked a camera for KETV Channel 7 for a decade, took footage of the famed cannoli-eating contest at the festival. It was his first encounter with Santa Lucia and he was instantly enamored with what he found there.
“What I found most amazing was that, in today's culture, they still have an organization and this celebration built entirely around a saint,” Soby said. “It's something pretty special they've got there. I talked to Jen and Mike and said, 'Think about it. We should do a long-form story on this.'”
Mandolfo Carey and DiGiacomo didn't have to think for long. The story of Santa Lucia and the wider portrait of how the Italians and their descendants staked their Omaha claim was begging to be told.
Even with day jobs — Mandolfo Carey as a teacher, DiGiacomo as a co-host for KMTV Channel 3's morning program and Soby with his own photography and production company — the trio managed to find time to start the arduous but ultimately rewarding process of collecting photos, old home movies, first-hand accounts and other stories of the Italian experience.
As the title of the documentary suggests, it was all about devotion, in one way or another.
“'Devoti' can take on so many meanings,” Mandolfo Carey said. “Devoti is the Italian word for devotion, for devotee. The men who march with the statue of St. Lucy through the streets are called the 'devoti.' It's a story of devotion to a saint, to traditions, to family, to heritage, to a town. It goes a lot of directions.”
DiGiacomo said he always felt the story was there to be told but, growing up immersed in Italian-American culture and the festival, sometimes it was easy to forget what a halcyon tradition the festival describes.
“It's part of who we are,” DiGiacomo said. “But talking to someone like Pete, who is not Italian and is seeing it entirely new, you see how this story is important and how the festival and Italians came to be in Omaha is something that will be intriguing to people.”
Indeed, DiGiacomo said he sees the story of “Devoti” as one not just concerned with Santa Lucia, not just with the Italian-American community in Omaha, but as a story about family, faith and heritage that reaches across ethnic or religious divides and permeates the membrane of what it means to be an American.
There's also a spiritual element involved in the film, including a story of a purported miracle brought about by asking for St. Lucy's intercession.
“I think it will appeal to people of faith,” he said. “There's a spiritual message in the documentary we were able to pull out that will resonate with people. We hope we've built some emotion into the piece. We don't just want it to be a history lesson, although it will appeal to people in the community who are interested in history, but we want it to move people. We want laughter, we want tears.”
Two years ago, the group traveled to Carlentini — whence both Mandolfo Carey's and DiGiacomo's families hail — for the small village's own take on the Santa Lucia Festival.
“Devoti” will take a parallel look at how Carlentini and Omaha, separated by an ocean and, in some cases, hundreds of years, have grown into a special kinship. Walking the streets of the small Sicilian town, the trio said they couldn't get far without someone throwing out a familiar surname.
“You say 'Omaha' and immediately, people are coming to you: 'I have cousins there, I have family there,” Mandolfo Carey said. “They know all about Omaha. There's a special connection there.”
Said DiGiacomo: “It is the story of these two towns and the link they share. I think that will be very fascinating for people to hear.”
And like Grazia Bonafede Caniglia nearly 90 years ago, the producers played on heartstrings and heritage to raise more than $30,000 to complete the telling of their story.
“It's been an incredible experience,” Mandolfo Carey said. “We hope it's a way of promoting our heritage, promoting the festival and showing that younger generation how to take pride in what we have. Santa Lucia revitalized the Italian community in Omaha in its time. We hope maybe 'Devoti' will have that same effect.”
DVD copies of the film are also expected to be available soon.