Crabtree fireworks highlight the summer
Now that the Fourth of July is out of the way, the real fireworks can begin.
For decades, Westmoreland County residents have built traditions around the Crabtree fireworks — coming this year at 10:30 p.m. on July 20.
The showy display is part of the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Festival, which began in 1911 after some men at the Bertolina & Ditto General Store in Crabtree reminisced about fiesta celebrations in Italy to honor Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.
“It started out as an Italian celebration, then changed hands to the firemen, the church,” said Rizzi DeFabo, co-owner of Rizzo's Malabar Inn in Crabtree.
“Now it's everyone's celebration. The fireworks are such a draw, Crabtree is known as the 'fireworks town,'” he said.
This year's festival will run July 18-21.
Louisa Wotus grew up with the festival, which used to last a whole week, complete with amusement park rides.
Wotus, the fundraising chairwoman for the event, has lived in Crabtree for 40 years.
As a child, her grandparents lived across the street and there were always people crowded on their porch.
“The fireworks would actually shatter windows — that's how spectacular they were,” said Wotus, whose own children now work at the festival. “The last few years they've been setting off the fireworks from several different locations so when you're standing in one place, you're surrounded by them.”
The fireworks are set off by Keystone Fireworks Company in Dunbar, which has put on the display for more than 50 years.
DeFabo and brother Jerry DeFabo Jr. grew up attending the festival.
“It's a tradition, it's part of our life,” he said. “It's something to try to keep alive for generations to come.”
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel is the title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary in her role as patroness of the Carmelites, a Roman Catholic religious order founded on Mt. Carmel in the coastal mountain range of northern Israel. On July 16, 1251, Simon Stock, prior general of the Hermits of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, was praying when the Lady is said to have appeared to him holding a scapular — a small piece of cloth worn like a necklace — with a promise that whoever wore the scapular would benefit from her intervention. A group of people later migrated to Italy and took the painting of a Madonna with them.
Gene Yanity, who calls himself the self-appointed town historian, has lived in Crabtree for 76 years. According to Yanity, in the early days, it was strictly an Italian festival.
In 1940, the fire department took over the celebration as a way to raise money for the department. During the war years of 1942-1945, there was no celebration and many feared the tradition had died.
St. Bartholomew Church took over the event in 1949 and continues to do so to this day. People of all ethnic groups began taking part.
After Mass on Sunday the festival culminates with a band and a procession through town in honor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. The ‘batteria' (Italian for battery) is shot with additional fireworks and the flags of the United States and Italy are unfurled.
An estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people attend the four-day festival each year.
As a child, Yanity said, the festival gathering was the most people he'd ever seen.
“Then, that was the most people gathered for a celebration,” said Yanity. “Today, you have Twin Lakes. ... People have been to Disney 50 times, Idelwild 50 times, but when I was a kid that was the one day you looked forward to.”
For the Rev. Justin Matro, pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish for the past year, the event is like coming home.
Matro's family grew up in Crabtree and he remembers attending the festival as a child.
“People always seem to want to come back to Crabtree,” said Matro, adding that it's a strong focal point for families. “It really builds community on so many levels to work together, new families, old families, people come from all over, to help out.”
When Mary Lou Meighan of Laughlintown attended her first celebration several years ago, she had no idea what to expect. Although the “spectacular” fireworks display keeps her coming back, it's also the warm welcome she experienced from the community of Crabtree.
“I just moved here five years ago from the city and it was like nothing I had ever experienced before,” she said.
“I'm proud to be a part of it,” DeFabo said. “It's like Christmas in July.”
Michele Stewardson is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.