SPRING HILL — What began five years ago as a small parish social at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church has grown into a community festival, venerating a Catholic saint with the pomp and merriment of an old country celebration.
The Italian Religious Street Festival and Feast in honor of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini opens Thursday and runs through Sunday at the church on Mariner Boulevard.
In a solemn procession at 3 p.m. Thursday, clergy and members of the Knights of Columbus will circle the church grounds, carrying a statue of Mother Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants.
The likeness then will be ensconced, with guards, for veneration throughout the festival in the church's outdoor arbor. Celebrants may signify their honor by pinning donations to the statue's cape.
"We've never seen anything like this around here that I know of," said John Hauser, one of the organizers who had witnessed a similar event in Erie, Pa.
More than 20 vendors, including local restaurants, will offer fare for festival-goers.
"A lot of Italian food," Hauser noted.
A cannoli-eating contest at 5 p.m. Saturday will highlight gastronomic forays and find parish priest Father Richard Jankowski leading the line. The contest to consume the sweet ricotta-filled delicacy, provided by Gino's Place in Spring Hill, will be limited to the first 15 registrants.
The festival will feature 25 carnival rides, some for tots. Daily armbands for rides cost $20 in advance at the church office from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and $25 once the celebration is under way.
Youngsters also will be treated to free games indoors, while a casino with small games of chance is expected to attract adults.
A couture boutique, also indoors, will sell furniture, jewelry and other gently used goods specially selected as upscale, Hauser said. Religious items will be available in the church gift shop.
Two raffles are planned — one a 50-50, the other for a Samsung 60-inch 3D TV with surround sound, valued at $5,000, with tickets $5. Drawings will be at 6 p.m. Sunday.
A strolling accordionist will hype ongoing entertainment in Xavier Hall: Bobby Rebello, Benny Continental, Michael Russo and Band, Moon's Tae Kwon Do and vocalists Donald Pino, Kenn "E" Grube and Stan Prinston.
Proceeds from the events will go to the church general fund.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]