NEW ORLEANS -- Then, as now, the fear of anthrax was in the land.
In the rural Kenner, La., of 1899, with cattle stricken with anthrax dying in the fields, hard-pressed Sicilian farmers turned to a friend from the old country, and begged St. Rosalie to intercede on their behalf with God until the epidemic abated.
And now with anthrax back -- more distant, but also more sinister -- Kenner Catholics plan three days of prayer beginning this weekend at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, asking the same saint to help protect their country from the same plague that threatened their great-grandparents.
The parish has scheduled special Masses on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings. Parishioners and others intend to ask for divine help against those who have sent anthrax through the mail to strike unsuspecting recipients in Washington, D.C., Florida and New York.
"We'll be praying for anyone threatened by this disease, for those who've already contracted it, and for an end to this threat to our country," said the Rev. Randy Roux, who suggested the three-day observance to the Rev. Richard Miles, the pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
For centuries St. Rosalie -- or sometimes Rosalia -- has been the figure Sicilians turned for assistance with their prayers to God.
A 12th-century hermit who lived and died alone in a cave near Palermo, she is the saint they asked to approach God for them when children fell ill, jobs were lost, crops failed and hearts were broken.
But it was an anthrax outbreak more than a century ago in Kenner that first prompted Sicilian immigrants to turn to her again.
A few days ago, the symmetry of events struck Roux, who knew the Kenner story though he is posted at St. Patrick's church in New Orleans.
Anthrax then; anthrax now. Go to St. Rosalie again, he thought.
He pitched the idea to Miles, the pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, who signed on immediately.
Not that St. Rosalie had been forgotten in Kenner -- far from it. Every year since 1899, hundreds of grateful devotees of St. Rosalie carry her decorated statue through the streets of Kenner praying the rosary out loud.
Many, like Rocky Mumphrey, 71, and Dolores Plaia, 64, remember walking behind the statue nearly every year since childhood.
Plaia does it barefoot, a form of penance, while reciting her rosary and giving thanks for personal favors she attributes to St. Rosalie's intercession with God.
The last annual procession was in early September, two days before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 when anthrax was merely part of community lore, not a new and ominous threat.
This weekend's events won't involve processions, but it will include special prayers to St. Rosalie after the Masses, Roux said.
"Everybody profoundly believes in her, and that she creates miracles," said Virginia Pizzuto, who remembers walking in the procession as a child behind her Italian mother and grandmother.
"Most definitely, I think this will help."