Columbus Day celebration aims to inspire

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published September 30, 2015

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MACOMB COUNTY — In 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and Italian-Americans in the metro Detroit area don’t want their heritage to lose its meaning anytime soon.

The Michigan Columbus Day Celebration Committee is at the forefront of incorporating a series of events that reach out to Italian-Americans around the nation’s annual Columbus Day festivities.

Actually, the celebration has taken place for a long time — since 1896, to be exact. However, the celebration was not technically incorporated until 1955, when it was held annually in Detroit.

Italian Heritage Month is annually celebrated in October to coincide with Columbus Day, which takes place Oct. 12.

Pam White, who conducts public relations for the committee, said that in the early years of the celebration, a Christopher Columbus statue was made and dedicated to the city of Detroit from friends of The Italian Tribune. At the time, the statue cost about $2,300, which would be around $233,000 today.

White said the numerous events are meant to highlight the Italian-American culture and what Italian-Americans have brought to the United States over many decades, including food, clothing, style, architecture and construction.

As the committee noticed fewer people were attending these types of celebrations, it was the goal of the committee to have a resurgence in the community. Italian-Americans have assimilated themselves out of their own culture, White said, and she hopes that more continue to identify with one another to keep the traditions alive.

“I think people are very busy nowadays, and there used to be a way for children to know others in the community and a way for adults to communicate in the community,” White said. “Now, children go to a lot of athletic things and not a lot of cultural things, and a lot of people are tired and Facebook is a lot easier.”

President Mark Garagiola is in his first year at the helm, which is a “revolving door” in which a person is president of the committee for a two-year period. White was president a couple of terms ago.

He said that Italian-Americans take pride in the only holiday that really has any involvement with their heritage. When banquets used to be held at Detroit’s Cobo Hall during the 1940s, 600-700 people would attend the gatherings.

Garagiola, 57, recalls being a teenager and participating in the old celebrations. The parade route used go down 12 Mile Road and end at the old Italian-American Cultural Center, which has since moved to Clinton Township.

Now a few years into its new home in Mount Clemens, he wants to build more awareness and get Italians out of their comfort zones by traveling to participate in the festivities.

“Some events have gotten bigger; it’s gotten to the point that we can’t have that many people come because the glass floor can’t support the amount of people to come,” Garagiola said. “We’d love to have our parade be like the St. Patrick’s parade.”

Money plays a role in setting up the events too. Costs, including having police on hand, bands, insurance fees, bus drivers, sponsorships, and the parade itself can run up to $4,000.

The three honorees at this year’s celebration are actor Martin Bufalini, opera singer Eva Evola and philanthropist Theresa Toia.

“We feel that they have shown positive reflections upon the Italian community and shown Italians in the positive light,” White said. “Marty does a lot of acting and is proud of his Italian heritage. He’s been a great reflection of Italian-Americans in the metro area. Eva constantly gives to the public, doing fundraisers and such, using her voice to help out clubs and organizations as much as she can. Theresa is a philanthropist, and it shows that Italians give back a lot to the Italian community and do it as representing an Italian nationality.”

Various events take place at different locations: a Mass at 9:30 a.m. Oct. 4 at San Francesco Church in Clinton Township; an 8:30 a.m. bus boarding Oct. 7 to head to the state capitol; the Columbus Day Parade at 11 a.m. Oct. 10 at Main and Church streets in Mount Clemens; a memorial Mass at 11:30 a.m. Oct. 11 at Holy Family Church in Detroit; and a banquet on Oct. 11 at Villa Penna in Clinton Township for this year’s three honorees.

A previous event, the Columbus Day Queen Pageant, took place May 18 and included 16 girls of Italian descent vying for a scholarship donated by the Italian American Chamber of Commerce of Michigan.

“We want to keep the tradition alive because if we don’t, it would disappoint our parents (some of whom are no longer alive),” Garagiola said. “It’s something in our own families that we try to keep important — kind of the passing down of the baton through the generations.”

For more details on each day’s events and of the history of the parade, visit or call (586) 298-1492.