There's more to the Gippsland town of Kooweerup than potatoes and asparagus. Due to its large Italian community, Kooweerup plays host to the annual Festa di Santa Sofia- a sacred feast day to celebrate the patron saint of the hilltop town of Sortino in Sicily, from where many citizens of Kooweerup originated.
For the past 477 years Santa Sofia has been publicly honoured by the people of Sortino and 2011 marks the 39th anniversary of the celebration in Kooweerup; a highlight of the Shire of Cardinia's calendar.
But first some background information on this much venerated saint. The cult of Santa Sofia is based on oral history as there is no recorded evidence of her existence until 1535. There are several versions of her life and miracles and the most popular claims that Sofia originated from Constantinople in the first or second century AD and was born of a pagan father, (a governor), and a Christian convert, whose faith she adopted. After the death of her mother, Sofia was persecuted by her own father for her beliefs and imprisoned in a tower, enduring floggings and mistreatment. It is said she escaped from prison with the help of an angel and fled by boat to south-eastern Sicily which was then a Roman colony. There she spread Christianity to the pagan villagers and lived a modest and pious life in a cave, until she was recaptured and subsequently beheaded - the fate of many a Roman virgin martyr.
A church service to commemorate Santa Sofia's piety and courage, is held annually in Kooweerup in Italian at Saint John the Baptist Church in Station Street. The popular Il Coro Friulano, a choir from the north-east of Italy, will sing hymns during the service. Then, in keeping with the long-held religious customs of Sortino, a life-size statue of the saint made of painted wood and commissioned in Italy over fifty years ago will be carried along in a procession to the sound of a brass band (Bellini Band), around the neighbouring streets by devout followers who pin dollar bills on the statue's pedestal.
Unsurprisingly, the procession evokes strong emotional responses from devoted followers who may be reminded of the ceremony held during their childhood in their hometown during the 1940s and 1950s. The only things missing are the fireworks and crackers that accompany the statue in Sicily.
Following this, the festa transforms into a joyful community celebration and this year Italian band, Viva Italia will perform traditional songs and respond to the odd request or two. Many participants will not be able to resist the urge to sing along to the songs or break out into a good old-fashioned waltz. Attendants are encouraged to bring a picnic lunch to enjoy in the school grounds where tables and chairs will be set up and where a wondering piano accordionist will be on hand to serenade each table.
A much anticipated feature of the event is a public auction organized by the Sortino Club of Melbourne, conducted by the highly enthusiastic Vince Bucello. Bids are made for the first or best produce of the season grown in Kooweerup such as asparagus and potatoes or quality fruits and vegetables and other assorted goods. Cannoli, sesame seed or almond brittle, pinnuchiata, are also up for grabs, especially the latter made by a long-term resident of Kooweerup, Maria Bombaci, for the past 38 years. A single tray of Maria's pinnuchiata has been known to fetch up to six hundred dollars at this auction.
I have been assured that the Festa brings people of all nationalities from all corners of Australia to Kooweerup and is a great way to catch up with old acquaintances long separated by distance and time.