St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church hosted the 18th annual Irish Italian Festival on the church grounds from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday, March 16 after mass.
People of all ages gathered for food, games, an art show, a silent auction and live music to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Chairman of the Irish Italian Festival Kim Busche has attended every festival since its origin, beginning her service to the church as a lead cook and then becoming the chairman during the second festival.
“The priest asked me, and usually when a priest asks you to do something, you do it. It’s just like when a minister or priest from any church asks, you step up. I enjoy this kind of stuff,” Busche said. “When they asked me, they knew I had knowledge about large groups of people moving around, and that’s why I’m doing it.”
Busche said about 200 volunteers help run the festival.
Busche said her favorite part of the festival was its power to unite people in the Hattiesburg community.
“We have groups that come together for different reasons. I like the fact that those who volunteer get to know new people, new members of the church who have never volunteered before all of a sudden here they are. You get to see talents. That’s the biggest thing in the church. God gives everybody talents, and we want you to use them. And we get to see some new talents in people who didn’t know they could do those things.”
A five-year parishioner at St. Thomas Amelia Diaz decorated both the St. Joseph and St. Thomas altars for the first time.
“The process was looking at a lot of pictures at previous altars. They’ve been doing this for 18 years, so it was kind of nerve-wracking. I’m a Puerto Rican girl trying to impress a whole bunch of Italians and Irish people and parishioners here,” Diaz said.
“People have stopped by and taken pictures and told me how pretty it was, so I guess they liked it.”
Diaz described the parishioners as her family. “Being a Catholic all my life, I had never been to a church that welcomed me and my family with open arms. I was impressed. Once that happened [five years ago], I said, ‘I think we’re going to like it here,’” Diaz said.
“You get the community to come out and come together. We’ve got people from all faiths, all walks of life here to enjoy themselves, so we try to provide a good time for everybody to come together, and I think that’s the best part,” Busche said.
Data imaging specialist in the Registrar Office at Southern Miss Maria Englert volunteered at the art show held in the education building.
Englert has been coming to the festival since the beginning.
People from the community submitted family-appropriate art before spring break for sale and just for show. Englert said they would like to have more participation from college students in the future.
“We have a hard time getting the student art because it’s spring break,” Englert said. “We would love to have student art in the future, and we’re always willing to work with students if they want to drop it off before the break. But by the time we start putting the word out for the festival, it’s usually getting close to midterms, so we don’t have much student participation, unfortunately.”
The art pieces were all made by Hattiesburg artists. Painted ceramic cups, acrylic and oil paintings and pencil drawings were all on display. Some were on sale for as low as $5 and as high as $1000.
The art show was named after Don Hegwood, a past member of the church and previous head of the art show, who died in September 2016.
When guests walked into the art show, they immediately saw a sign honoring Hegwood that described him as “instrumental in the formation of the Welcoming Newcomers Ministry” and “an enthusiastic supporter and writer.”
A senior political science major Lauren-Hunter Gaudet attended the festival with her family, a tradition she has upheld for several years. Although Gaudet is not a member of St. Thomas, she enjoys coming every year.
“I think for this festival, it’s not just St. Thomas. It’s definitely a Hattiesburg festival,” Gaudet said.
“I really love the culture of St. Patrick’s Day, and this festival is always very fun,” Gaudet said. “Most of these people aren’t Irish or Italian, but they all come together for this holiday.”