Where there was turmoil last year after organizers named a grand marshal for the St. Patrick’s Day’s parade, this year there is excitement.
Old Dominion President John Broderick, an Irish-Catholic and longtime Hampton Roads resident, has been selected to head the parade on March 19 that begins an all-day party in Ocean View. Unlike some previous grand marshals, he is not a politician.
“We always look for someone who is widely respected, someone who does a lot for the community,” said Norfolk attorney Peter G. Decker III, one of the parade’s organizers and an ODU alumnus.
“President Broderick is well-liked and has done so much to help ODU and the entire region.”
That doesn’t mean the parade will get much support from area Catholic organizations. The parade, which honors the 5th century missionary who brought Catholicism to Ireland, has been a Catholic affair since its inception in 1967, but won’t be sponsored by a Catholic organization this year.
Last year parade organizers ignored an edict from local and state Catholic officials and named Gov. Terry McAuliffe grand marshal.
McAuliffe is a lifelong Catholic, and should be respected, Catholic officials said. But he’s governed on pro-choice and pro-gay marriage principles. Officials said someone who has worked against core church teachings should not have been accorded such an honor by a Catholic organization.
The Ocean View branch of the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal men’s Catholic organization, named him the grand marshal anyway. That resulted in Norfolk’s Holy Trinity Catholic Church severing ties with the Knights.
The local Knights also drew a rebuke from the Richmond Diocese and the state Knights of Columbus.
Father Joe Metzger, the priest at Norfolk’s Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, has never been to the parade, but was pleased to hear that Broderick, one of his parishioners, was chosen. He said Broderick is a popular choice.
“John is a wonderful fellow,” he said. “This is a great choice for the city and the region.”
This year’s parade is being sponsored by the Norfolk Parade Inc., a new corporation set up by Columbian Club of Ocean View. The Columbian Club is a nonprofit that is closely aligned with the Ocean View Knights of Columbus, but is technically separate.
The Columbian Club owns the Knights of Columbus Hall on Government Avenue, where the St. Patrick’s Day party will be held after the parade.
Diana Snider, director of communications for the Richmond Diocese, said Bishop Francis Xavier DiLorenzo has not issued any directives regarding the Norfolk parade now that it is no longer a Catholic event. Snider said she is unaware of any Catholic organizations that will participate.
However, Decker said students from Christ the King School in Norfolk will march.
The parade is one of the region’s most colorful events, with spectators gathering along the parade route before sunrise. About 40,000 people attended last year, Decker said. Rules against drinking in public are lightly enforced and many dress in colorful garb ranging from traditional to the outrageous.
Because his grandparents immigrated to America from Ireland, Broderick said he’s always viewed St. Patrick’s Day as more than just a day to drink green beer. The holiday was a time of quiet reflection when he was growing up in Bristol, Conn.
“Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the festivities as much as anyone,” he said. “But it was always a family day where we reflected on the plight of so many Irish relatives, of the challenges so many faced coming to America.”
Raised in Killarney and County Cork, his grandparents immigrated to America through Ellis Island before settling in Connecticut. He said he wishes they were alive to witness him leading a St. Patrick’s Day parade.
“This would have meant the world to them,” he said. “They worked so hard. My grandfather’s brothers and sisters were either custodians or domestic workers. One or two found a spot in the fire department.”
He said he didn’t understand the struggle his ancestors endured until he read “Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir,” a book depicting in raw and gritty detail the poverty in 1930’s Ireland.
“I never could quite comprehend why my grandparents had so many brothers and sisters, and why so few of them were alive, until I read the book,” he said.
“I recognize the Irish aren’t the only immigrants who struggled. But as an Irish-Catholic, who is so appreciative for everything my ancestors did to provide opportunities for my family and for me, I was very honored to be asked to be grand marshal.”
Decker said proceeds from the parade will go to charity. Even though the parade has a new sponsor, the organization is virtually the same as last year, he said.
“The guys who produce the parade are long-time friends,” he said. “They just want to put on a good, family-oriented fun event in Ocean View that’s safe and entertaining. We’re looking forward to another huge parade.”