“Without music, I couldn’t breathe.”
These are the words of Russell Canino. He found his passion for music when he began performing in his elementary school, which is situated in what was the Italian neighborhood of North Denver near 36th and Navajo in Highland.
He grew up in the house across the street from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, the same house where his grandparents raised his father. Family was everything.
“The family roots go right back to the neighborhood,” he said. “I can’t deny I’m Italian just by looking at me. That means to me family and hardcore tradition.”
Family is a common theme across all of Italian North Denver, as is Catholicism. Mount Carmel is certainly the center of this life, especially for the Caninos.
“My family has been going to this church since 1900,” Russell said. “Born, baptized, confirmed, married, buried, all from this church.”
The church has been around since the year 1896, and as the building has aged, the Italian community around it has thrived. When it was built, the community was full of poor immigrants from Italy, who relied on each other and their faith to build their new lives in Denver. Many families have lived in the same houses since this time, and their Italian roots are firmly planted.
In 2022, the people and culture surrounding it is strong and true to its roots, and it is at its peak on the weekend of their patron’s feast day. To its community members, the two-day long festival is known as the Bazaar, or endearingly as “The Feast”.
It truly is a feast, with authentic Italian food sold at tents covered in Italian flags. The church parking lot packed all the way to the brim, and the camaraderie ever-present. Wine and beer flows, the air smells like sausage sandwiches, and sugary pizza fritta dessert is made by hand in front of the crowd.
Feast-goers can gamble to their heart’s delight, and the bingo hall is standing room only. There are 25-cent “pickles”, which are like scratch-off tickets. People shout for joy when the spinning wheel lands on their number at the “Large Italian Goods” tent, which earns them a giant salami or provolone wheel.
The Feast also features a special Mass with a procession afterward. The people of the community follow a truck (driven by Russell) around a few blocks of the neighborhood. The procession has banners, Italian and American flags, and the statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Church-goers say a rosary all together, connecting themselves to each other and to their faith. As they pray together, people line the streets to watch or participate. The statue requires four people to carry it at once, and the Mount Carmel Men’s Club takes on this honor. They alternate carrying it through the street, and some of the young boys get to excitedly share in the privilege.
The procession ends in the church parking lot, where the tents are already set up for the Feast. Those who walked in the heat will run to grab themselves a cold Coca-Cola, and of course another sausage and pepper sandwich.
The church is the epicenter of Italian lifestyle, and the Feast is the epic annual climax of it.
Tying the atmosphere together during the Feast is Russell. He has chased his musical dream across the country. From Las Vegas to California and even to cruise ships. Eventually, his dream led him back to the neighborhood where it all started.
Today he sings classic Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra songs, which echo across the celebration and give it the Italian vibe. This year was the 91st annual Feast, and Russell has been the entertainer for 21 of those years.
“This is the Italian event of the year,” Russell said. “You might not have seen your friends or family for a year or two years, but when you come back to the bazaar, you are coming back into a familiar place. You’ll be able to sit down and have a sausage and pepper sandwich with your cousins that you haven’t seen.”
The strong tradition and family values are so ingrained into the North Denver Italian community, and you can feel it in the air, and taste it in the sausage sandwiches.