WESTERLY — Locals and out-of-towners, families and friends lined the sidewalks of downtown on Sunday for a flag-waving celebration of a 66-year tradition, the annual Westerly-Pawcatuck Columbus Day Parade.
The event, established in 1947, featured more than 100 different groups, totaling about 1,400 marchers from local schools, bands and businesses. Ranging from a shark-themed float courtesy of Mystic Aquarium, to antique cars, Kentish Guards and school bands and cheerleaders, the participants brought a well-seasoned mix of music, entertainment and local color.
While many of the groups were regulars, the grand marshal — the Most Rev. Paul Loverde, who grew up in Pawcatuck — was participating for the first time. Loverde, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Va., has traveled the country and the world, but said he always loves returning to his childhood home.
“I am both humbled and privileged to come back home,” he said. “It’s such a great community event that unites the two towns.”
Loverde’s passion for education inspired the theme of this year’s parade, “commitment to education.”
“Education is such a great contribution made to young people,” he said. “It allows them to develop in all aspects of their personality: intellectually, physically and emotionally.”
Loverde’s alma mater, St. Michael School, was one of many represented in this year’s parade. Principal Doris Messina said the school has participated in the parade for five years. “I think it’s just a great event,” she said. “It’s good to celebrate who we are, our sense of community and pride.”
The Westerly Band has been marching since the parade’s first year. For the past seven, the band has carried out a new tradition: its first song is one written by Westerly resident and band member Pat Siravo.
Siravo described the song, “The Spirit of Westerly,” as upbeat and well-suited to street marching.
Alison Patton, band director, said, “It’s got a lot of spirit, just like the town.”
For onlooker Karen Azzinaro, of Westerly, not much has changed in her routine of watching the parade over the years,
She said she attends every year, and always sits in “her spot” on the stone wall across from Ella’s Fine Food & Drink.
“It’s a great chance to get together with friends and family,” she said. “It’s so enjoyable and so full of community spirit.”
Even 4-year-old Brody Kenyon of Westerly said this is not his first time at the parade.
“We always do some family thing this weekend,” said his mother, Andi. “This year, it was apple picking. But it always ends with going to the parade.”
Brody said he was most excited for the free candy given out, and was specifically hoping for bubble gum lollipops.
“He loves the tubas, too,” added Andi.
A newcomer to the parade, Megan Ravenelle, just moved to Westerly after marrying her husband, Brian, a Westerly native. “So far, so good,” she said.
Edward Kaar, of Providence, was also a first-time parade-goer, brought by friend and Westerly resident Jennifer Stitch.
“You don’t see a lot of the smaller community parades going on anymore,” Kaar said. “Whether it’s lack of funding or members, I don’t know. But it’s great this thing is still going.”
Though the parade lasted just a few hours, Jeff Frenette, vice president of the parade committee, said the planning is a yearlong effort that begins the day after the parade.
Frenette, who has served with the committee alongside his wife for 11 years, said the most difficult part is always organizing the lineup.
This year, the committee asked the Westerly High School chapter of the National Honor Society to serve as division marshals, effectively leading and organizing the 10 parade divisions.
“They have been an amazing group of kids to work with,” Frenette said.
Frenette estimated that the cost of the parade runs between $19,000 and $21,000 each year. Donations from corporate sponsors and division sponsors are essential to raising the necessary funds, as well as the annual pasta dinner fundraiser. This year, the event also received almost $3,100 from local residents and groups like the Friends of Columbus.
Securing Loverde as the grand marshal took some time, since the bishop has a very busy schedule. “We were so happy to have him this year,” Frenette said. “Thankfully the stars all aligned and he was able to come.”
Loverde concluded that the character of the towns, as represented by the parade, is what he misses most when he’s away.
“There’s a real warmth of the people in this area that always makes it a joy to come back home,” he said.