Irish-Italian festival celebrates heritage


Pine Belt community members gathered in green to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in the 14th annual Irish-Italian parade and festival, hosted by St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church on March 19.

Hundreds lined up at 10:30 a.m. on 4th Street to watch the parade as floats filled with crews flinging beads to the crowds sailed by. High school bands, animal shelter staffers and St. Fabian churchgoers were among those represented in the parade.

Prior to the festival, a 5K Run/Walk took place March 18 at the Southern Miss Gateway of the Longleaf Trace. On March 19, a Celtic mass at St. Thomas began at 4 p.m., and the festival ran from 5-10 p.m.

Following the 2015 festival, the church began planning the parade and festival in the summer of 2015.

“It’s tradition,” said festival attendee Charles Jackson. “It brings the community together. [It is] nice to see the same faces over and over again and new faces.”

Festival chairman Kim Busche announced the king and queen of the Irish-Italian Festival at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church’s Parish Center Monday.

Petal letter carrier Hal Odom and USM women’s basketball head coach Joye Lee-McNelis were crowned king and queen, respectively.

Popular Irish and Italian foods, such as pigs in a blanket and meatball in an ice cream cone were sold at the festival, and children’s games were offered for free.

Jackie Melancon, coordinator for the Irish and Italian coffees stand, has volunteered for the event for 12 years and said she has seen the festival grow and change.

“One purpose to have the festival is for the entire community at large,” Melancon said. “People come from all over, knowing that the children can have fun and the family can have something to eat.”

Beginning in March 2000, the small family-oriented festival is meant to celebrate the Irish and Italian cultures in the city. St. Thomas’ priest at the time was Irish and attracted many Irish members of the community. Several Italians had attended and volunteered for the church.

With this group, the church held its first festival. Volunteers claim the festival is “fun- oriented,” not “fund-oriented.”

“I’m from Louisiana, and it’s all about festivals,” Melancon said. “People like to come out and enjoy being with other people in the celebration. They’re not stuck in the house as much.”

The money raised this year will Catholic student programs. In the past, the church used profits from the festival to support Southern Pines Animal Shelter and Extra Table.