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Omaha Magazine

'It's a Community Effort:' Caniglia’s Roots Run Deep With Santa Lucia Festival

May 27, 2021 04:12PM ● By Scott Stewart
Joe Caniglia in a blue shirt

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Tomatoes, onions, and garlic are sauteed and reduced to a perfect consistency. The sauce is seasoned, and roasted red peppers are marinated in the mixture. Freshly charred sausage is then covered with the peppers to create the iconic sandwich of Omaha’s Santa Lucia Festival.

The process of creating the sausage-and-pepper sandwich reflects the love, dedication, and togetherness that defines Omaha’s annual celebration of Italian heritage.

Joe Caniglia has grown up with the Santa Lucia Festival—in fact, he was born during the festivities in 1931.

“My first three or four years, I thought it was a big birthday party,” Caniglia said.

He’s been involved throughout his life, and at 89, he has seen two granddaughters crowned queen and been named the parade’s honorary president. Caniglia is currently giving back to his community as a trustee of the festival.

Omaha’s Santa Lucia Festival was founded by Grazia Bonafede Caniglia in 1925. The mother of six immigrated to Omaha from Carlentini, Sicily, in 1900. She made it her mission to recreate Carlentini’s annual festival honoring St. Lucy.

Those early immigrants commissioned a statue of the saint designed in Italy, which now resides in St. Frances Cabrini Church and is brought out for the festival each year.

Todd Procopio, president of the festival, said Omaha’s Italian population largely hails from Carlentini—about 70% of Omahans is their best estimate—and the vast majority of committee members and traditional Little Italy neighborhood residents have roots in Sicily.

“My grandparents came from Carlentini,” Caniglia said. “When you say Little Italy, you’re talking about a lot of very close people.”

At the festival, he said everyone greets each other with “hi, cuz,” since, in all likelihood, there is a family connection, even among strangers.

“Everyone is connected some way or another,” Caniglia said.

The parade can be heard from blocks away following Mass. People follow the statute of Santa Lucia, escorted by a group of women dressed in green, and they give money.

“The march with the saint to the arch is a big event for everybody,” Caniglia said. 

There’s also a crowning of a queen, which used to be based on raffle ticket sales, but now includes academic and community service components.

The festival is usually a weeklong affair, but this year it will be only four days—July 8 through 11. Besides traditional Italian food, the festival embraces the enchanting sound of Italian music.

“The music is wonderful,” said Josephine Lohmeier. “I always like to make sure that I get there early.”

Lucia Ferraguti St. Cyr, who is Lohmeier’s niece and Caniglia’s cousin, said that two musicians are writing special compositions that will be performed at the 2021 festival, recognizing a major milestone for original festival in Sicily.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of Carlentini’s Santa Lucia Festival, and a few dozen Omahans are hoping to make the trip this August to be part of that celebration.

“With COVID, we don’t know what’s going to happen with that,” Lohmeier said.

There’s also an effort to have Carlentini and Omaha recognize each other as sister cities, and a group from Carlentini are hoping to visit Omaha for its centennial festival in 2025. By then, the festival plans to return to the Lewis & Clark Landing, which will have finished its revitalization as part of the city’s RiverFront park project. 

The construction along Omaha’s riverfront has displaced the festival this year, and last year’s festivities were disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. The 2021 festival will be held at 10th and Williams streets in front of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church.

“We’re coming full circle back to the neighborhood,” Caniglia said.

While this year’s event won’t have the carnival atmosphere, it will still feature a wide array of Italian food, including spaghetti, ravioli, pizza, cannoli and gelato—the Italian frozen dessert with the mouthfeel of dense, rich ice cream.

“In the old days, people would vend things off their front porches all along the street,” Caniglia said.

Mary Lou Cappellano Riley said that her fondest memory growing up was spending time with her family around the Santa Lucia Festival.

“It was something that brought our family together at my nana’s,” Riley said. “You would see your cousins throughout the year, but you would know for sure that you’d see them for the five days that was the festival. It was just, for us, it was magical.”

The festival’s sights, sounds and smells—like the sweetness of roasted red peppers—recalls those beloved memories.

“They always had sausage and pepper sandwiches—always,” Caniglia said.

The sandwiches have evolved over generations, as several family recipes have influenced the result—even if recipes aren’t exactly followed by the army of volunteers doing the cooking. 

“We make all of our own food from scratch,” Riley said. “It’s a labor of love.”

There’s also, she admits, “a lot of taste-testing to make sure you have it perfect.”

The volunteers spend hours cooking sauce, slicing and roasting peppers and preparing a couple dozen 5-gallon buckets of peppers to be served. The peppers also have to cool before storage.

On two separate Saturdays, another group assembles with about 20 ice cream makers to make chocolate, lemon and strawberry gelato for the festival.  

“It’s an all-day type of production,” Riley said, estimating about 20 to 30 people volunteer their time at the Santa Lucia Hall. “Nothing that we do that’s food related is just a few people. It takes a village to get it done.”

That’s the point, though. Caniglia said people look forward to sharing that time together.

“They really look forward to gathering to prepare everything,” he said.

It used to be that people just walked down to the hall, but now most travel by car to spend a day cooking, Lohmeier said. Those prep days usually last 6 to 8 hours.

“It’s a community effort,” Caniglia said. “It’s an awful lot of people involved.”

Procopio said the organization has about 200 members, and those that live in town will always come help with preparations. Omaha also has two other Italian heritage organizations: the American Italian Heritage Society, which sponsors La Festa Italiana each September, and the Sons of Italy. 

The dedication shown by the Santa Lucia Festival organizers is obvious in the food they prepare and the care that goes into everything else about the annual event.

“In order for a dish to turn out fabulous takes a lot of love,” Riley said. “This organization puts a lot of love into whatever we do.”

That love comes from the many people like Caniglia who give time and passion to its success. Procopio said Caniglia’s been a long-time member of the organizing committee.

“He steps up to help—whatever’s needed,” Procopio said. “His passion is all about the saint and about the community and the comradery that this whole committee has. Joe’s a staple here.”

The festival means a lot to Omaha’s broader Italian community. It’s a place for coming together and for building connections. Many important milestones in life revolve around the festival.

“It’s truly centered around our devotion to our saint,” St. Cyr said.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Caniglia added.

For Riley, the Santa Lucia Festival tradition can be summed up succinctly.

“It’s faith, family and fellowship,” Riley said.

“And food,” Lohmeier added.

“And where there’s food, there’s wine,” Caniglia quipped.

More information is available at santaluciafestival.com or @SantaLuciaFestival Facebook. 

This article originally appeared in the 60+ section of the June 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.