Snapshots of a Roman Thanksgiving

Celebrating the quintessential American holiday in the Eternal City isn’t easy, but the community of U.S. Catholic expats found creative ways to bring a taste of home across the Atlantic.

The NAC Thanksgiving Mass and dinner in Rome was a welcome time of prayer and fellowship.
The NAC Thanksgiving Mass and dinner in Rome was a welcome time of prayer and fellowship. (photo: Jonathan Liedl / National Catholic Register)

Being abroad for the holidays can be a homesickness-inducing experience — especially for a celebration as quintessentially American as Thanksgiving.

But in Rome this past holiday weekend, the community of U.S. Catholic expats did everything in its power to bring the sights and sounds — and tastes — of Thanksgiving to the Eternal City, serving up a hearty portion of pumpkin pie, flag football, and even a musical performance by a beloved band of bluegrass-picking preachers.

The centerpiece of this spread of American Catholic Thanksgiving goodness was, as it is every year, the annual Thanksgiving Day celebration at the Pontifical North American College, the U.S. bishops’ house of formation for American diocesan seminarians studying in Rome.

The NAC, as it’s affectionately known, is always something of an official outpost of American Catholicism in the heart of the universal Church, but it plays this role in a particular way on Thanksgiving, a holiday that is not observed in Italy (even while Italians increasingly observe “Black Friday”). 

This was evident at the opening Mass that kicked off the Nov. 23 evening Thanksgiving celebration, from the liturgy prayed to those who were gathered to pray it. 

The Mass readings didn’t come from the ordinary liturgical calendar, but were instead picked from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops-approved selection of special “Thanksgiving options.” The guest celebrant, Abbot Gregory Polan, the primate abbot of the Benedictine Order and an Oklahoma native, preached on the Gospel account of Christ’s healing of the 10 lepers. 

The witness of the one leper — a Samaritan — who returned to thank Christ underscored that it is in times of weakness and dependency that we can experience deep gratitude, said Abbot Gregory, noting that thanksgiving for our family and country is perhaps most acutely felt when we are far away from them.

That messages likely resonated with those gathered in the Immaculate Conception Chapel, which included not only the seminary community, but also a host of guest priests, women religious and laity who live and work in Rome or happened to be in the Eternal City for the holiday. 

Prelates present included Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Auxiliary Bishop Juan Miguel Betancourt of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut, and Cardinal James Harvey, a Wisconsin native who currently serves as the archpriest of the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome. Orders of women religious like the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the Religious Sisters of Mercy from Alma, Michigan, were well-represented. 

Thanksgiving Feast

The themes of thanks and familiarity flowed over from Immaculate Conception Chapel into the NAC’s refectory for dinner. In a special Thanksgiving twist, seating was determined by state, with each table decorated with unique elements. The Texas table had cowboy boots on it, while Maryland’s had cans of Old Bay seasoning. North Dakota’s table featured a bison skull, Wisconsin’s had foam “cheeseheads,” and several of the chairs at the Minnesota table were adorned with flannel shirts.

The sense of connection with the United States was emphasized even further with a special address from Joe Donnelly, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. Donnelly, a Catholic and an Indiana native, read a Thanksgiving Day declaration from President Joe Biden, before adding his own thanks to those gathered for the spiritual nourishment they provide to Catholics back home in the U.S.A.

The NAC’s Thanksgiving dinner itself included many classic American staples, such as green beans, potatoes and gravy, and sliced turkey — with some unique Italian twists. Cranberry sauce was on the table, but so was caprese salad. Pumpkin featured prominently on the menu, both in its pie form, but also as a ravioli first course.

Serving up American Thanksgiving classics in Italy is no easy feat — whether at large gathering such as the NAC dinner or at one of the smaller Thanksgiving celebrations hosted by American Catholics throughout Rome.

Benjamin Crockett, who hosted a Thanksgiving dinner at his family’s apartment, noted that it is “kind of impossible to get a turkey” in the typical American style in Rome. The American-born EWTN journalist, who has now lived in Rome for five years, noted that previous Thanksgiving meals he took part in resorted to turkey meatballs. This year, he went directly to a Roman butcher to get a “proper” Thanksgiving turkey.

“But they still kind of did it in the Italian way,” he shared, such as removing the bones and adding pistachios in lieu of stuffing.

Other American Catholics talked about the difficulty of finding Thanksgiving essentials like cranberry or pumpkin filling in Roman shops — Italians are dismissive of the idea that pie can be made from pumpkins — but still go to great lengths to have an authentic taste of home for the holiday.

Back at the NAC, the hosts acknowledged that they wouldn’t be able to provide attendees with the traditional Thanksgiving post-meal trip to the couch to watch football on TV. Instead, priest residents provided some lighthearted entertainment, preforming the “Ten Commandments of Thanksgiving” and a “battle rap” between St. John Paul II and St. Theresa of Calcutta over whose pumpkin-pie-making skills were better — with both scripts generated by ChatGPT.

Flag Football and Flat-Picking

However, even though there was no football at the NAC on Thanksgiving Day, it was still an important part of the holiday weekend. On Sunday, Nov. 26, the seminarians played their annual “Spaghetti Bowl,” a flag-football match between the first-year seminarians and the NAC veterans (the “Old Men” bested the “New Men” by a two-touchdown margin). 

And earlier in the week, on Thanksgiving morning, the NAC facilitated another Thanksgiving activity popular back home in the states — a “Turkey Trot” 5K run around the Vatican City. Deacon Michael Maloney, a seminarian of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, won the 14th-annual iteration of the race, his time in the mid-16:00s good enough to take home the title for the second year in a row.

However, perhaps the most popular piece of Thanksgiving weekend entertainment took place on the other side of the Eternal City on Saturday evening: a live, in-person concert at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas featuring the Hillbilly Thomists.

It was the first-ever public, international performance by the popular bluegrass band, whose members are Dominican friars from the Province of St. Joseph in the eastern United States. The Hillbilly Thomists drew a crowd of more than 500 to the Angelicum, including many of the same folks who had been at the NAC for Thanksgiving, as well as students studying abroad from U.S. Catholic colleges, like Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia.

Although the concert itself wasn’t explicitly a “Thanksgiving event,” the holiday weekend is what made it possible for the band to get together in Rome; two of its members, Father Justin Bulger and Father Simon Teller, are normally engaged in chaplaincy ministry at the Dominican-run Providence College in Rhode Island.

Furthermore, it’d be harder to think of a more quintessentially American genre of music to feature in Rome over Thanksgiving weekend than the Hillbilly Thomists’ blend of bluegrass and American folks hymns and spirituals.

Hillbilly Thomists in Rome, November 2023
The Hillbilly Thomists perform (and practice) over the weekend in Rome.(Photo: Elizabeth Alva/EWTN)

“It’s definitely in the Thanksgiving spirit,” bandmember Father Peter Gautsch, who is completing doctoral studies at the Angelicum, said about the concert.

As Father Thomas Joseph White noted, bluegrass music is making something of a comeback in the U.S., after being pushed to the margins during the “electrification” of music, and is deeply rooted in America’s musical tradition.

“Dominicans, you know, we’re also very interested in tradition,” quipped the band’s banjoist, who is also the rector of the Angelicum, “particularly in the theology and philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, among other things.”

The Hillbilly Thomists played American spiritual classics, such as Poor Wayfaring Stranger, but also several original numbers, such as Bourbon, Bluegrass, and the Bible. Crowd members, many of them already familiar with the band’s catalogue, sung along, and the Dominican musicians received a standing ovation and a call for an encore.

Annelise Taggert, a journalist originally from South Dakota who has lived in Rome for eight months, attended both Thanksgiving at the NAC and the Hillbilly Thomists’ concert. She said the holiday-week offerings of the U.S. Catholic community in Rome “helped cure any homesickness that could’ve easily crept up during my first family holiday spent abroad.”

Taggert described the NAC dinner as “a big neighborhood get-together at home,” mixed with some Italian flair, and said the Hillbilly Thomists’ concert provided “the live bluegrass music I’ve been missing.”

“The Rome community has always done an incredible job of making me feel welcomed and at home, and Thanksgiving week was no exception.”