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Don the green and boil the cabbage: St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are starting early this year — at least for some Irish-Americans who don’t want to run afoul of the Roman Catholic Church.
Festivities kick off this weekend — more than a week before March 17 — with Philadelphia, Milwaukee and New Haven, Conn., among cities holding parades. That’s because St. Patrick’s Day falls during Holy Week for the first time since 1940.
And to preserve the week’s solemn focus, church officials have moved St. Patrick’s feast day up to March 14. Some event organizers have moved up their celebrations as well.
“To us first and foremost, it’s a religious holiday, and we would never hold our festivities without the Mass,” says John Forbes, general chairman of Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The parade will follow religious services honoring Ireland’s patron saint on March 14.
Some cities are sticking with traditions of celebrating either on the 17th or the Sunday before, which is Palm Sunday, despite pleas from bishops who wish they’d switch dates. The tension underscores a struggle to reclaim a unique holiday that blends revelry, religion and cultural pride.
“It’s not at all surprising that the conservatives would recoil from parades” during Holy Week, says Thomas Hachey of the Center for Irish Programs at Boston College. “The festivities have degenerated in some instances. … They’re not so much honoring a saint as they are a reflection of embarrassing displays of drunkenness and increasing amounts of commercialism.”
In Columbus, Ohio, Bishop Frederick Campbell has had no luck persuading the Shamrock Club to let Holy Week be a time without floats, jigs or grand parties. Months of negotiation haven’t led to compromise, even when the club offered Campbell a role as parade grand marshal.
“The 17th of March is a huge day for any Irish community,” says Mark Dempsey, president of the Shamrock Club of Columbus. Irish-Americans “rely on that day (to communicate) a huge tradition of public service and charitable giving that Irish organizations do throughout the year.”
In St. Louis, Archbishop Raymond Burke released a statement suggesting that Catholics should celebrate St. Patrick’s Day “at an appropriate time outside of Holy Week” and “observe the holiest days of the year with the appropriate recollection of mind and restraint in activity.”
But that message may have been too subtle. For 27 years, the largely Irish neighborhood of Dogtown has had its parade on March 17.
“We don’t feel it’s disrespectful” to march during Holy Week, says Jim Sheerin, a member of the Dogtown parade committee. “Since the archbishop didn’t say ‘Change it,’ we feel fine about doing it.”
Not all bishops have picked this battle as a worthy one to wage. Those in Boston and New York, for instance, opted not to fault their flocks for holding festivities during Holy Week. Others got a lucky break, such as in Chicago, where traditional events such as dyeing the Chicago River green and a downtown parade always happen on the Saturday before the 17th.
Whatever bruises may linger from this year’s unusual calendar, they’ll have plenty of time to heal. St. Patrick’s Day won’t fall during Holy Week again until 2160.
Copyright 2007 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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