By Louise Vest
Succulent aromas ascended from the grill; adults chatted; bees buzzed the dessert table; and kids played in the grass, their orange ball and blue bat waxing exotic against placid fields of green.
This was, however, an extraordinary event, for not only has this annual May procession and family reunion been held continuously for 65 years, it was born from a mother's prayers for her children.
Elvira Lancelotta is gone now, but her family, many of whom reside in Howard County, continue to honor her by coming together one day every May for a Mass and celebration of family. This reunion, honeyed by tradition, is both joyous and peaceful; but it began because of war.
As if there wasn't enough horror surrounding World War II, an event occurred during America's first year of the war that jolted millions and, in particular, made parents of those in the military shudder every time they thought of Aleta and Thomas Sullivan. In 1942, at the Battle of Guadacanal, the Iowa couple lost all five of their sons, who were stationed aboard the bombed USS Juneau.
So when Joachim and Elvira Lancelotta, parents of a large family living in Baltimore's Little Italy, sent off five of their six sons into the military during the war, Elvira made a promise to the Blessed Mother that if all of them returned home unharmed, she would make a special tribute to her every May, for the rest of her life.
Eddie, Guido, Victor, Jerry and Charlie all came home safely. True to her word, she made that tribute of thanks for all that could have happened to her sons and didn't. For the most part, they were not in harm's way. Though throughout the war years, there was plenty of worry about when one or more of her sons might be thrust into battle.
That waiting game required a certain kind of valor and was not without consequences, as the stress quickly aged lots of war-time parents -- including the Lancelottas.
"After my mom's second son was drafted, her hair turned gray," recalled Victor Lancelotta, 89, the youngest of Joachim and Elvira's sons, and the only son still remaining. Two sisters also remain, Eleanor and Mary. The oldest brother, Guido, died just last year at the age of 101.
Brother Edmund was the first to be drafted, a short time before the war began. After his training, he was slated to be sent overseas on Dec. 8, 1941.
"Eddie told my mom, 'There's not going to be a war, I'll be OK.' Ha! Then came December 7 and Pearl Harbor!" said Victor.
Eddie, who was in the army, ended up in the South Pacific on the Galapagos Islands. Then Guido was drafted; he was also Army. Next, it was Jerry's turn, and he went into the Navy and was stationed stateside.
By summer 1942, the draft board set its sites on Victor, but this time Elvira Lancelotta wasn't letting go without a fight.
She went to the draft board and appealed to them, telling them she already had three sons in the military. Victor was given a reprieve of six months. He joined the Navy in December 1942.
Only brother Frank remained at home. Toward the end of the war, brother Charlie was the last to be drafted, when the desperation of the government to finish the fighting was playing out at draft boards across the nation.
"The draft board was grabbing anyone by then," said Victor. "Charlie had two kids and worked in a defense plant, and they still took him!"
During Victor's time in the service, he moved around stateside and then spent part of 1944 in London, where the Germans were sending over the new V-2 rockets. Luckily he wasn't close to the rockets' targets. After V-E Day, (Victory in Europe) in May, 1945, Victor was slated to go to the South Pacific, but the war ended before he was sent.
"My mom had five stars hanging in her window, the most in Little Italy, I think," recalled Victor, about the small flags with blue stars on them indicating a family member is serving in the military during war time. The gold stars represent a family member killed, but to everyone's joy, all the Lancelotta stars remained blue.
"I got out of the service in spring 1946, and in May we had the first reunion," said Victor. It's a reunion the brothers all attended throughout the years. One aspect of the procession that family members particularly enjoy is the crowning of the statue of the Blessed Mother.
"Each year, the children in the family who have had their first Communion do the crowning," said Sam Lancelotta Sr., an Ellicott City resident and son of Jerry Lancelotta.
This year, there was a slight glitch in that no children took their first Communion, so an adult, Theresa Lancelotta Prione, crowned the statue. Prione has the distinction of being the first child to crown the statue back in 1946. Another tradition is that the Mass and Rosary, held in the pavilion before the picnic, is presided over by Father Sal Furnari, of St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church, in Little Italy.
The May procession/reunion, held in the park's Avalon section, hasn't always been held there. For decades, it was held at the family estate, property in west Baltimore that the Lancelottas purchased after the war, referred to as The Hill.
It was where many fond family memories were created, including one of a large, marble statue of the Blessed Mother that the family had made in Italy a couple years after the war. A smaller, more mobile statue is now used at the reunions. And there was also once a large WWII artifact on The Hill for the May procession.
"One of my uncles bought a WWII army surplus jeep, and we had that up on The Hill, too, for the reunion," said Dr. Charles (Buddy) Lancelotta, who also recalled that there were hundreds of people who came to the event. Guests included church Cardinals, nuns and dignitaries, like Baltimore's mayor.
Lancelotta, a neurosurgeon, on staff at Howard County General, is the third oldest of the grandchildren. Born at the beginning of WWII, his father was Charles Lancelotta Sr. The doctor has only missed one reunion in 65 years.
Because the families have grown so large, at this year's reunion, name tags were worn. And one creative family wore T-shirts announcing they were "Team Eleanor" in honor of their mom, who couldn't attend. Eleanor was one of Elvira and Joachim's daughters.
Some of the Baby Boomers in attendance shared their own reunion memories.
"We all have fond memories of being on The Hill," said Rose Lancelotta Cavey, of Ellicott City.
"The first time I really remember the reunion is when it was my turn to crown the Blessed Mother. I was 7 and had my first Communion that year. I think my daughter was 13 when it was her turn."
"I love this reunion, it's great to see everyone. But I can't imagine sending five sons into WWII." said Lulu Lancelotta, Rose's sister.
"My son's a lieutenant in the Marines. He hasn't even gone overseas yet, and it's a worry. So, it must take a great deal of faith to survive sending five," said Pam Bianco, a granddaughter-in-law.
Toni Apicella Donovan, Eleanor's youngest, said her children appreciate the reason behind the reunion, adding that her daughter even wrote a paper on the event in middle school. "For me, it's a great way to remember those brothers and to really thank all those who serve our country."
Keeping the promise
Mary Lancelotta Bianco, youngest child of Joachim and Elvira's, talked about the war as she sat in the shade of the pavilion at a picnic table.
"I was 18 when the war started. I was just coming out of the Hippodrome Theatre when we heard about Pearl Harbor." She knew instantly that the attack would change life for everyone.
She began to talk about her brothers but had to pause for a moment. Though she was surrounded by family on a beautiful May day, talk of that long-ago war and her brothers leaving home, one by one, still brought tears to her eyes.
Once composed again, she continued, recalling that while her brothers were away, her mom went to Mass every day to pray for her boys. Her mom also spent her days working at the family's confectionary store.
"When dad was in the store, he'd sit quietly on a stool with the rosary in one hand and pray for my brothers. When they all came home safe, we had a huge Mass at St. Leo's."
As Mary left her table to talk to a niece, Buddy Lancelotta looked out over a scene ripe with relatives and stated, "Not many events go on for 65 years."
Indeed -- along with the ceremony, food and chit-chat -- there was also talk of the accomplishment of maintaining a tradition in an era when traditions are scarce. Along with the warm breezes wafting about the pavilion, there were definitely undulating currents of pride.
However, as the older generation disappears, along with that magnetic pull of first-hand stories, will the tradition continue? Even with over 30 grandchildren, will those in the outer bands of the family's orbit continue to keep the promise of a war-time mom?
For Buddy Lancelotta that's a situation for which, just like that faced during the war, there are no guarantees.
"Whether it can be kept going, well, that remains to be seen."