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Seven men — three generations of Brooklyn-bred Italian-Americans — climbed up and down a 72-foot tall aluminum spire as they hoisted a statue of San Paolino, an Italian saint, by rope and pulley to the very top.
“I haven’t been this anxious since my wife was in labor,” said Mark Mascioli, 43, as he watched from the ground.
“She was the one doing all the work on that day — what’d you do?” another man shouted down, working the crowd that had gathered Saturday on the corner of Havemeyer and North Ninth Street in Brooklyn to prepare for the Feast of Our Lady Mount Carmel and San Paolino di Nola.
Onlookers in their 70s and 80s watched from the sidewalk, unamused. Young children, unaware, climbed an empty sausage-and-pepper stand, waiting for their fathers and grandfathers to complete construction of the festival’s iconic pillar: the giglio.
The extravagantly decorated ceremonial spire and a stage big enough to hold a 10-piece brass band are attached to a platform, lifted and carried through the streets of Williamsburg during the parish’s annual two-week festival that started on Wednesday.
Joining the paranza — the lifting team of about 300 men — had for 116 years been a sacred and exclusive rite of passage, passed down from father to son.
But this year, for the first time, organizers issued an open invitation for new volunteers, asking for outsiders to join the paranza in a neighborhood where gentrification has reshaped the once-predominantly Italian enclave.
What began last March as a brainstorming session by feast organizers turned into a word-of-mouth recruitment campaign, and by last spring, it had spread to social media.
An old-world tradition met a modern networking staple.
Eighty new volunteers have registered since May to help lift the four-ton giglio and a life-size sculpture of a boat. This brings the group to a robust — all male — 360.
“When we started this recruitment effort to get lifters, it was always a forward-thinking idea,” said John Perrone, 32, a feast organizer and one of eight “lieutenants” presiding over this year’s lift.
Mr. Perrone, who also manages the feast’s Facebook account, said hundreds of emails poured in responding to the recruitment post. Some wanted to volunteer. Others worried the message was a harbinger of something far worse than dwindling participation: the feast’s extinction in a neighborhood that has become better known for hipster hangouts than Italian bakeries.
“We’re good now, but the fear will always be, ‘What does that next 10-year gap look like? Do we have children being born into this as we were?’” Mr. Perrone said. “We don’t want what we do to just become folklore. We just wanted to make sure that this remained a part of people’s lives.”
Chris Herche, 40, moved to Williamsburg from Cincinnati about 10 years ago to pursue a career in the music business. He is not Italian, but he and his wife have been attending the feast for years.
He said he volunteered to lift as soon as he saw the call-out, and he will be among the men carrying the giglio for the first time on Sunday, after Mass.
“I think this call to action, to bring in new participants, really accentuates the communal aspect of this festival,” he said. “As Williamsburg changes, this has been kind of a glimpse into the past.”
Mr. Herche has attended two organizing meetings since signing up to lift. “Guys who had only met me for five minutes had remembered my name and were welcoming me to their tradition,” he said.
Many older organizers said they were open to the idea of non-Italians joining the lift, so long as they shared a dedication of faith.
“It’s 2019 in New York City. We have to be as inclusive as possible,” said Anthony Allocco, a 30-year-old banker who lives in Williamsburg and has been singing with the band on the base of the giglio since he was 15. “Like everything else, it has to adapt and be more innovative in outreach to survive. That’s what this call-out was about. It was a temperature check.”
The feast honors the Roman Catholic church’s namesake and pays homage to San Paolino of Nola, Italy. As the story is told, after an act of self-sacrifice, San Paolino returned to his hometown, where he was met with praise and townspeople carrying lily flowers.
The lifting of the giglio, the Italian word for lily, is a tradition brought by Brooklyn’s first wave of southern Italian immigrants in the late 19th century. The first giglio lift recorded in Brooklyn was in 1903.
Williamsburg is now less than a quarter Italian-American, down from more than 50 percent in the 1950s, according to Jerry Krase, an urban sociologist and former Brooklyn College professor.
But even after leaving Williamsburg, many Italian families with deep roots in the neighborhood make it a point to bring their children back to the feast. (A “children’s lift” is held each year with a miniature giglio.)
“The feast helps this community stay cohesive,” said Dr. Alyssa J. Maldonado-Estrada, an assistant professor of religion at Kalamazoo College in Michigan who has studied the Italian-American community in Williamsburg. “There is this return to Williamsburg, constantly.”
Families, she said, come back to the parish to marry, to baptize their children and to attend Mass.
“We would expect to have this dying Italian community,” Professor Maldonado-Estrada said. “But what we’re actually seeing is an Italian community that is surviving, despite all of that.”
“When our first generations came here, it was a race to become American,” said Mr. Perrone, who now lives in Queens. “But now our second, third and fourth generations are realizing the importance of reaching back, to cling to that culture that we had.”
Jordan Forgione, a 22-year-old Williamsburg resident, picked up the tradition of lifting from his father and grandfather. He wears a gold chain bearing a pendant of the giglio.
“There are a lot of us in our 20s here,” he said. “We’re the next guys that will take control at some point, and I could say, we’re in good shape.”
By Saturday afternoon, the giglio structure was decorated in papier-mâché angels and lilies, and draped with an enormous rosary. San Paolino was anchored safely at the tip.
Anne Marie Mace, 65 and a lifelong Williamsburg resident, said she would encourage neighborhood newcomers to participate.
“No matter who you are or your background or nationality, you have to work together. That’s how America works,” she said.
“But this is our tradition. I think even when the last Italian leaves, they’ll always come back to keep this going. It’s in their blood.”