SPRINGFIELD — It’s been a long road for 17 girls that applied to represent Springfield this year as the city’s colleen. In the beginning, their names were redacted from the applications — they were assigned numbers from 1-17 and were anonymous.

Instead of knowing who the girls were, judges focused on what the young women had accomplished, in school and life in general. Judges also wanted to know what the girls thought about being Irish, what it means to them and how their heritage shaped them.

“We also asked them to talk about their involvement in not only the Irish community but the general community, and their community service,” said Kerri F. Sullivan, vice president, Springfield St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee.

“They’re also asked to talk about three adjectives somebody would use to describe them and three words they would use to describe themselves,” she said.

With that information, and answers from a series of personal interviews, five finalists were selected, and on Feb. 10, one of them will be named Springfield’s grand colleen. The other four girls will be in her court. The coronation is taking place at St. Anthony’s Church in Springfield, in the church’s Cedars banquet hall on Island Pond Road.

The finalists are Hannah Ailis Willetts, 18, of East Longmeadow; Bridget Mary Laviolette, 22, of East Longmeadow; Emma Feeley, 20, of Springfield; Caitlin Grace Dowd, 19 of East Longmeadow; and Madelyn Johnson, 22, of Longmeadow. One of the five finalists will receive a $750 college scholarship.
Contestants from Springfield, East Longmeadow, Longmeadow, Wilbraham, Monson, Palmer, Ludlow and Ware are eligible join the competition.

“We try to get judges from all over the area. It’s important that they know what the colleen contest is and that it’s not a beauty pageant. We don’t have a talent portion. They’re looking for well-rounded young women,” said Sullivan.

The Springfield committee had more contestants apply this year than in the last eight years. Sullivan thinks energy and excitement are building as past winners describe their experiences and post pictures online.

Young women from 18-22 years joined the competition this year.

“If you’re chosen as one of the five finalists, that in itself is such a huge honor. And the coronation is a surreal experience for those five girls,” said Sullivan. “Their friends and family come all dressed up for the ball, and there’s so much excitement as the emcee announces the names and accomplishments of each girl as they enter the room.”

There are six local committees that have colleen competitions, sending winners and their courts to appear in the parade. It’s a 50-year tradition in Springfield, and an important way to keep Irish culture alive.

“As with any immigrant group, as time passes, you’re further removed from the older generations and you can lose some of the history and the culture. The colleen contest and everything it represents keeps a little piece of that going. It instills in the younger generation a sense of their heritage and where they came from,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan will be at this year’s coronation, as she has been for so many years. The event is as stirring for her today as it was when she was colleen in 2003.

“Sitting there and hearing these girls speak is such a powerful thing because they really want to make a difference in the world,” she said. “It’s great that they have this platform to do so.”