Sicily's Leap of Faith

The Island Emerges from the Pandemic

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The island of Sicily has been overrun and conquered by numerous empires and civilizations. The year 2020 brought a new and deadly conqueror, the coronavirus. The lockdown was absolute — even church doors were shut tight. But in 2021, Sicilians brought life and traditions back to their streets.

Saint’s days, or festas, are important events on the Sicilian calendar. Last year, for the first time in more than a century, some towns canceled their festas. The arrival of vaccines this year seemed to offer hope that the processions would once again march down the ancient streets. However, a surge in summer tourism, while helping the local economy, also boosted the coronavirus infection rate.

Sicily has the lowest vaccination rate in Italy. Nevertheless, scaled-down celebrations have reappeared in the island’s streets. In the capital city of Palermo, residents gathered for the festa honoring the Maria della Mercede (Madonna of Mercy), which dates to the 16th century. Children were hoisted aloft to be blessed by the Virgin as a marching band played in a small piazza fronting the church that bears her name. Local bishops did not permit the normal procession because of the pandemic, so local children had their own, carrying a cardboard re-creation of the Virgin through the labyrinth of the famous Il Capo district’s narrow streets.

As the fireworks blossomed overhead and the marching band played on, it was easy to see that Sicilians were embracing a centuries-old tradition that seems certain to last for many more to come.