At the 124th Annual Feast of our Lady of Mount Carmel, he will guide 130 men who are all set to carry a huge, 80-foot tall, 3-ton Giglio (Italian for lilies) statue for the traditional Dance of the Giglio, a major part of the famous Italian-American religious feast. The 12-day feast runs from July 6 to July 17 along four blocks, starting at Havemeyer and North 7th streets.
“My lifelong dream was to be number one Capo,” he said. When he was very young, his father would bring him in a baby carriage to the Catholic Church, which hosts the feast every year. “It's in our blood, I grew up with it,” he said. His 23-year-old son is now a lifter at the feast.
Because the Mount Carmel’s Church 125th anniversary is also next year, this Giglio Feast will mark the beginning of celebrations for the historic milestone, which Occhiuto will also be top capo for since the position is kept for two terms.
For Occhiuto, 55, reaching the top capo position at his parish is very exciting, not just for him but for his family and friends. In his charity work for the feast and church for the past 35 years, Occhiuto has moved up in the ranks from a statue lifter to lieutenant to apprentice capo, and finally to head capo at the feast.
During the festivities there will be at least 7,000 people, some who come all the way from Las Vegas. There will also be roughly 100 vendors and Italian food and music in the streets of Williamsburg for the Giglio Feast. This also includes a devotion procession on July 16 to honor Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the patron of the parish.
Occhiuto says everyone in the neighborhood knows about the annual Giglio Feast and the story behind it, which has its roots in Southern Italy.
The famous feast is a time-honored tradition that was brought to Brooklyn by Italian immigrants 120 years ago. During Giglio Sunday, the Giglio, along with a boat, are carried for five hours to honor religious hero Saint Paulinus, of Nora, Italy, who had lilies, a sign of love and purity, thrown at the saint when he escaped captivity in Italy.
Tony Groce, a friend of the top capo, says Occhiuto worked hard for the position and showed loyalty and hard work at the church and the feast from the time he met him 40 years ago.
“If he is with you, there is no wavering; you know he will be there,” Groce said. “ He is loyal to the parish, friends, the family.”
Their families have shared events together, such as weddings, christenings and other social events. Groce says they complement each other because he is more loud and boisterous and Occhiuto is more reserved.
“You see opposites attract,” Occhiuto added.
They have worked together on charities through the church, including providing food for the homeless during the winter months and on Thanksgiving, an effort led by Groce and the church.
Since 1995, Occhiuto has spearheaded the Century Club at the church, where he makes and puts up advertisement signs on a 28-foot board to solicit money from individuals and businesses. This generates $100,000 toward the annual feast from club members. With the Century Club, Occhiuto really made his mark, allowing the feast and church to survive for all these years.
“We get to keep the Italian-American tradition alive,” he said. He can’t wait for the feast. “It is a real good sight to see and very exciting.”