Changes to St. Mary's festival

Workers cook sausage at last year's St. Mary of the Angels festival. After the church was designated a basilica, officials have decided to only run the festival June 10 and 11 and close down the festival for the night at 8:30 p.m. June 10.

OLEAN — St. Mary of the Angels’ recent designation as a basilica will bring a major shake-up to the church’s long-running festival.

Church officials are doing away with late-night festivities, as the 46th annual festival held outside the West Henley Street basilica will run just two days — Saturday June 10 and Sunday June 11 — and close down for the night at 8:30 p.m. Saturday. The weekend festival previously ran until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.

All the usual activities — games, live music, food and alcohol — will still happen, although not as late as community members are used to. Sunday’s festivities lasting from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., which include $15,000 in raffle drawings, will remain the same as past years.

The changes come on the heels of Pope Francis designating the 102-year-old Roman Catholic church a basilica in February. St. Mary’s officials said they expect several hundred pilgrims to visit the basilica during the festival and plan to offer more tours and spiritual services like confession to accommodate them.

“We want a fun, family event filled with a welcoming sense, especially for those that are coming for a more spiritual purpose,” said the Rev. Gregory Dobson, St. Mary’s pastor. “If people want an adult experience, we’re offering that on Saturday until it gets dark, which is sufficient for us.”

Officials claim they’ve heard positive feedback from neighbors, who deal with festival noise every year, and from volunteers, who now face a less taxing weekend. However, they did admit they’ve seen community members express disappointment on social media.

“The only ones that have talked to me have been positive because they’re the worker bees that are saying, ‘Oh thank God we won’t have to work as hard or as long,’” Dobson said. “Now, I haven’t heard from the 22-year-olds that are looking for a party night out, but you know, there are other watering holes in this town.”

While religion has always played a role in the festival, officials said they now have increased responsibility to emphasize the sacredness and holiness of the building. They plan to move tents away from the basilica’s front entrance to make it more accessible for those looking to do things like appreciate its stained glass windows during daylight hours.

Jennifer Kane, St. Mary’s communications director, also said the late nights never fit into the “family fun” atmosphere the festival should be about. However, she said the changes are not in direct response to any reported police incidents. She said no incidents have occurred on festival property.

According Olean police reports, an Olean man was charged at 10:30 p.m. on the Saturday of last year’s festival with second-degree harassment, a violation, for striking another man with a plastic folding chair at the festival. At 10:30 p.m. on the Saturday of the 2015 festival, a Cuba woman was charged on Irving Street with third-degree assault, a class A misdemeanor. The police report said the charges stemmed from an incident at the festival.

“They don’t leave here with alcohol. … We do not send them away intoxicated. We have taxicab service. Police will take someone home,” Dobson said. “That’s always been a problem and it’s a problem at every outdoor venue.”

Dobson and Kane also admitted the changes are a cost-saving move amid increasing expenses involving food, music, lighting, security and paying overtime to church employees who volunteer at the festival. St. Mary’s has traditionally not publicly released the cost of the festival, nor how much the festival generates for the church and other local causes.

“We’ve cut eight hours and those were very expensive hours,” Kane said.

Officials said they don’t anticipate the reduced hours to reduce fundraising because of the cost saving in other areas. Dobson said St. John’s Roman Catholic Church in North Olean did not “suffer significantly in the bottom line” after cutting its annual festival from two days to one last summer. St. John’s also renamed the former Festa Italiana to St. John’s Block Party and began charging for admission.

Dobson said the key to church festival fundraising is really the raffle drawings, which he called the “big money maker.” St. Mary’s $15,000 in raffles will include a grand prize of $10,000. The drawing begins at 5 p.m. Sunday.

Still, Dobson admits recent reductions to St. Mary’s, St. John’s and other local churches’ festivals are indicative of changing public interests and increased burdens that come with hosting such large events.

“We’re all at an experimental stage,” he said. “I think we have to admit doing this is valuable but it’s not going to be as lucrative.”

Officials noted they review every festival immediately after it ends and are open to bringing back late-night hours in the future.

“It’s an experiment we’re trying this year to see how we can do this and still realize our financial goals and also realize our spiritual goals,” Kane said.

(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at tdinki@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)

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