San Fratello: Raw, authentic Sicily


“More than 5,000 people currently in the U.S. are of San Fratello origin,” says Professor Salvatore Mangione, historian and former mayor of San Fratello, a village in the province of Messina, Sicily.

“In the old times, immigrant villagers from San Fratello principally settled in New York, in the tenement buildings on 107th Street,” says Mangione. “Among our paesani, there was my great-grandfather Antonino Lo Giusto, who at the end of the 19th century opened a bakery.”
Authenic Sicily
Benedictine sanctuary of the Three Saints: Alfio, Cirino and Filadelfio (Photo: Pippo Maggiore).

Mangione recalls that Al Pacino’s grandfather, Alfio Pacino, emigrated from San Fratello at the beginning of the 1900s. In NYC, he worked as a housepainter. Alfio’s wife Giuseppa Latteri was from San Fratello as well.

There is something enchanting about this obscure town that certainly has little in common with immaculately groomed Taormina. San Fratello is the real, rough and authentic Sicily. It nests on the crown of the Nebrodi Mountains that run along the Thyrrenian coast. There is something primordial about this place, which stands 640 meters above sea level.

In 2010 a massive landslide tore apart the village, seriously damaging more than 200 buildings and requiring evacuation of 25 percent of the population.

The seldom-explored Nebrodi Mountains have an outstanding swathe of national park that covers 125,000 hectares and is home to a rich range of birdlife, wild cats, foxes, porcupines and black pigs. The territory takes in an amazing variety of landscapes and sights — from Mount Etna framed in a natural paradise to fragrant woods, pristine lakes and lost villages.

Magnificent cathedrals and monasteries, hoarding centuries of secrets, sorrows and treasures stare imperiously out from the mountainsides.

Nebrodi Park is ideal for hiking, mountain biking and riding the local Sanfratellano horses. They look so aristocratic in the sunshine. “They are a hardy breed used for riding, hauling and draft work. They are black or bay in color and are well-built,” says Mangione.

“The Sanfratellano descended from the horses of Lombard knights. Roger I of Sicily (1031-1101), a Norman nobleman, married a Lombard princess, Adelaide Del Vasto,” explains Mangione. “Once back from the Holy Land, the couple brought to Sicily Adelaide’s retinue, including a number of knights and their horses.”
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Procession for the Feast of San Benedetto il Moro held on September 17 (Photo: Pippo Maggiore).

So from that day on, the people of San Fratello speak a Lombard dialect quite different from Sicilian. The Sanfratellani are called the Lombards or the Gallo-Italics of Sicily.

San Fratello is so rich in history. It was the site of the ancient Greek city of Apollonia, exactly on the summit of Monte Vecchio where the ruins are visible. Here also lies the Norman Church of the Three Saints.

“Al Pacino never visited San Fratello and I say it with great regret,” says Mangione. “I tried to get in touch with him when I was in NYC but he was busy with a movie. I would have loved to grant him honorary citizenship of San Fratello.”

But Pacino’s father, Salvatore, visited 15 years ago on the occasion of the Festa dei Giudei, a unique annual Easter event in San Fratello when “we literally celebrate the death of Christ, given the fact that it provided the redemption of mankind,” he stresses.

Masked men (gli incappucciati) wear 13th century costumes handed down from father to son and have a red mask over their faces while Jesus is nailed to the cross. “They represent the sinful man who masks himself in front of the mysteries of the cross, but after three days they take off the mask and kiss the feet of the dead Christ.”

This fascinating town is the birthplace of San Benedetto il Moro. Son of black slaves brought from Ethiopia to Sicily, he was born in the village in 1526 and eventually granted freedom at the age of 18. The humble monk became a reluctant superior of the friars in Palermo but when his term ended, he returned to the friary kitchen because he enjoyed cooking.
Sicilian cowboy
Famed Sanfratellano horses are descended from a breed introduced by Lombard knights (Photo: Pippo Maggiore).

He possessed gifts of guidance and healing, and in the last five years of his life was blessed with the gift of tongues, although unable to read or write.

He died on the day that he predicted, April 4, 1589, in Palermo. In 1592 his body was exhumed without signs of decay. In 1611, King Philip III of Spain paid for his shrine in the Santa Maria del Gesù in Palermo.

He is such a modern figure today. Co-patron of Palermo, he was declared a patron saint of African Americans as well. In a street festival, the Sanfratellani of New York celebrated his feast on 107th street and women danced barefoot on that day.

In San Fratello, the saint is celebrated on September 17, when many people attend the large procession. “Each one of our three parishes has a relics of him: a finger, a femur, a piece of skin,” says Mangione. The Great Spirit overlooks the Sanfratellani.

But about 1,500 evacuees from a 2010 landslide are still without a home in San Fratello.

“The impression is that someone has abandoned us,” says Mangione, referring to the Civil Protection Department.

“Is there any chance that some Sanfratellani in NYC of good will can give a hand, I wonder?”