For 85 years, Connellsville's St. Rita parish been hosting summer fun
It started 85 years ago — St. Rita RC Church Festival.
And it's continued to grow.
The popular festival will kick off Thursday and continue through Saturday on Connellsville's West Side.
For 85 years, the church festival has offered three days of good food, entertainment and just plain fun.
Thousands have visited the festival yearly.
Organizers are proud of the festival's long history.
“Many years ago the ladies of the church mixed a 25-pound bag of flour into dough for the fried dough in their homes, then brought it in or a parishioner picked it up. The sauce and pizza shells were done the same way, by individuals, in their homes, by hand. In the beginning they didn't have the facilities that we have now. They had to make the best of everything and had to make things in their homes,” said Rita Pratt, president of the church's Christian Mothers and chairwoman of the festival's food committee.
Pratt said the festival started as a street fair in honor of Our Lady Of Mt. Carmel Feast Day, which is July 16.
“We hold it as close to the feast day as possible to keep the tradition,” Pratt said.
The event has always been well attended.
Years ago there were not the quantities of food that are prepared today, but it was the food that brought the people to the fair. There were other stands but the food was always the draw.
“The fair was a beautiful celebration for the parish from the time it started. All the parishioners got together and worked for it and looked forward to it and it's still that way today. Everybody works for the fair,” Pratt said.
Women of the parish start food preparation for the fair in April.
“I have a wonderful group of 28 women who help. There are teenagers through those in their 80s. There is also a group of men who are a wonderful help and there are younger ones that have become involved, coming in to help,” Pratt said.
The Christian Mothers prepare an abundance of food that is sold at the festival including meatballs, cavatelli, pizza (whole or by the slice), manicotti, meatball sandwich, hot sausage in sauce sandwich, grilled hot sausage sandwich with peppers and onions, fish or chicken sandwiches, french fries, provolone sticks, nachos with cheese, hot dogs or kielbasa and kraut and pasta fagioli. There are take-out containers for those who want to take food home. Ice cream is sold. It is donated by a faithful family every year.
“Back when the St. Rita street fair began people walked from everywhere — the West Side, North End, South Connellsville. It was a special event for the town. It was wonderful, so many different people. Today they can drive from anywhere. People didn't have cars back then,” said Pratt. “Each priest that we have had has been very supportive and they've always enjoyed the festival and we are thankful for that.”
The St. Rita Festival is enjoyed by all ages, it has been for 85 years, said Paul Mongell, festival chairman.
Mongell said everyone is welcome.
“We are celebrating this 85th anniversary of the St. Rita Festival. The volunteers have been fantastic in their support, Rita (Pratt) and her group are truly amazing. They have really been the fuel for the engine, with Rita overseeing and keeping the quality of the food. I think the quality of the food is one of the reasons why the fair is so successful. Hopefully this event will be around for another 85 years,” Mongell said.
There is entertainment every night. On July 11 at 8 p.m., Abacus Jones will perform. Friday is DJ Cool Breeze Entertainment and Saturday at 8 p.m. The Sammy Brooks Band will take the stage.
“The Sammy Brooks Band is fantastic. They will be adding a little twist for the festival. They will include some Italian ballads and Italian folk songs into the repertoire for us to keep ethnicity at the fair,” Mongell said.
Thursday night, WMBS and DJs Mike Sackley and John Evans will host a live broadcast from 6 to 8 p.m. They will be bringing a prize wheel.
“I would imagine folks can look forward to Father Bob (Lubic) joining Abacus Jones for a song or two, maybe a classic Electric Avenue,” Mongell said.
Sammy Brooks of The Sammy Brooks Band is a member of the St. Rita parish. His grandmother, the late Rosella Talucci, was the organist at the church for many years before she passed away in 2007.
“The St. Rita Church Festival holds a very special place in my heart. I have been a parishioner of the parish my whole life and my family has strong ties to the church. It is an honor to play for the festival and to give back to the church and community. This is also a special night for me because my grandmother, Rosella Talucci, who passed away a few years ago, devoted her whole life to that church. She played organ and sang there for over 60 years and was a major organizer and cook for the festival and other church activities. She is my inspiration and I hope to make her proud on Saturday night. If it were not for my grandmother, I would not be the musician I am today.”
Brooks said the band hopes to give the audience a truly interactive experience and to get everyone up dancing to songs from the Swing Era. Songs will include “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Sway,” “Girl from Ipanema” and “The Song is You.”
“If you're lucky, we may even do some famous Italian tunes for the die-hard Italians in the audience. After all, I am the band's resident ‘paisano,'” Brooks said.
The pastor, the Rev. Bob Lubic, said the 85th festival promises to be a winner.
“I am amazed at the hard work and dedication of the parishioners who make this happen. It is great to see not just St. Rita parishioners, not just members of the Catholic community here, but a broad spectrum of the citizenry of the Jewel of the Yough gather together and celebrate,” Lubic said.
Mongell also said festival visitors will have a variety of games to enjoy.
“Most of the games are traditional, such as the Cake Wheel, that may have been around for 85 years. It is one of our best fundraisers,” Mongell said.
Mongell said the Cake Wheel price remains low. It's just a quarter to play.
“Many parishioners bake to donate their baked goods for prizes. They are fresh daily,” Mongell said.
And there's also the dime toss with plenty of dinnerware to win.
“It's almost like a throwback in regards to prices. We are geared toward family fun. Because we have many sponsors who are generous in their donations, we are able to keep prices very affordable. We want this to be a meaningful event for the entire community and those from out of the area who attend. There is no admission charge and the entertainment is all free,” Mongell said.
There are grand prizes which include tickets to Notre Dame-Temple opening day football at South Bend; Pitt-Notre Dame tickets at Pittsburgh this year; Steelers tickets; Pirates tickets in air conditioned club seating; overnight stays at places such as the Renaissance Hotel; and many more.
“The baskets are outstanding. There are some that we know will be there year after year including picnic, movies, Italian, sports themes, beach, lottery, wine, kids toys, spa services, restaurant gift certificates. The basket values are often $50 to $100. This will be the third year for the baskets, which have become very popular. In the past two years we have had around 40 baskets donated each year,” said Leah Delmar, a festival committee member.
Saturday evening following the 4 p.m. Mass at St. Rita, a procession forms to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, a day to honor the Virgin Mary.
“We have a statue to carry across the street. We will be walking it to the festival grounds in honor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. The Molinaro Band will play as we proceed. This walk is a tradition we maintain every year,” Mongell said.
Organizers have created a commemorative T-shirt. It is for sale for those who also want to celebrate the 85-year milestone. Festival volunteers have each been given one in appreciation for all they do and have done to keep the tradition going for over eight decades.
The event sponsor is Dom Mongell Tire in conjunction with Firestone. There are many other contributors who help make this festival possible, Mongell said.
Festival hours are 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. each day.
Nancy Henry is a freelance writer.