The P.A. Club: Good times, good deeds
The landmark one-story shingled building on Vineyard Avenue in Oak Bluffs is best known for being a place of camaraderie and affordable drinks. Officially named The Holy Ghost Association, this home away from home for its 1,100 social members is commonly known as the Portuguese-American Club, and familiarly as the P.A. Club.
Inside, it is spacious, with a cathedral ceiling and warm lighting. On a chilly Sunday evening, there are a handful of members at the large three-sided bar, and others playing cards at one of the many tables. There are seven TVs, a large-screen Wii game, pool tables, darts, a basketball toss game, video golf, and a jukebox. A popcorn machine is always kept stocked for snacking. The far end of the large room is dominated by a granite fireplace, above which is displayed a silver crown as a constant reminder of the altruistic spirit of the club.
Everyone seems to know everyone else - members can each bring up to seven guests - and the atmosphere is amiable and welcoming. Bartender Caroline Derrig, a friendly blonde, says, "People like the laid-back atmosphere. You can come straight from work without changing clothes."
File photos by Ralph Stewart
One of the regulars at the bar adds, "You might feel a little strange if you did change clothes."
Ms. Derrig points out that there's even a heated outdoor porch with multiple picnic tables to accommodate smokers, or those seeking a change of scenery. There are not many bars set on five acres of land.
Then of course, there are the prices. A domestic beer costs $3, and top-shelf liquor brands, $5. According to Ms. Derrig, a crowd of tradesman come in after work (the doors open at 3 pm on weekdays) and some stay until about 7:30 pm. At around 9 pm a predominantly young crowd takes over until closing. "There's everyone from retirees to kids whose parents are members and who join when they turn 21," says Ms. Derrig. "It's sort of a rite of passage." Board secretary Cathy Goudy describes the club as Martha's Vineyard's answer to the popular old television show "Cheers."
It's a small, friendly, generous community within a small community. A granddaughter of one of the founders, Tricia Bergeron, president of the association, has been a member for 25 years. "It's just a nice place to go," she says. "The drinks are cheap. The company is fun. You're always going to know somebody."
What many outsiders may not know is that all the money raised by the non-profit organization goes to Island charities, scholarships, and people in need in the community. Almost all those who work for the club are volunteers, and other members help defray expenses by donating their labor towards the upkeep of the building and grounds.
Seven members of Martha's Vineyard's Portuguese-American community founded the P.A. Club in 1930. (The last surviving founder, 97-year-old Joe Nunes, died a year ago.) Though many members are descendants from the original group, the membership includes all ethnicities. Ms. Bergeron explains: "In the charter it states as a purpose, 'To honor and further the work of the Catholic Church.' It really isn't a religious thing at all now, but that's how it started - to honor a saint."
The saint in question is Portugal's Queen Isabella, who sold her jewelry to provide food for the poor during a famine in the 14th century. The annual Feast of the Holy Ghost is held every summer to honor the saint. Explains Ms. Bergeron, "If you hold a crown you must have a feast, and have one day when you give out soup to the people."
Free soup is just the tip of the association's charitable iceberg. While the monthly fish fries (every third Thursday) raise money for the building fund, the profits from the breakfasts (every third Sunday) go directly to the Benevolent Committee, as do the net profits from the bar and membership dues. The club's Benevolent Committee has given out almost a quarter of a million dollars over the past five years towards scholarships and charities, aid to the sick and needy, and Christmas gifts and holiday meals.
"The Benevolent Committee is really the soul of the club," stresses Ms. Bergeron. "People tell us who's in trouble. We've made mortgage payments, paid electric bills - whatever we can do to help."
"The idea of the club is giving alms," says long-time member Kay Manning. "I'm sure we're going to be very busy this year with the economy."
The organization sponsors one student each year for their Close Up Program, which sends Island children to Washington, D.C., to see the federal government in action.
As well as hosting benefits for Island schools, and fundraisers for its ill or in-need members (they even maintain a fund to pay for mammograms and pap smears for women under 40), the P.A. Club provides space without charge to members for funeral gatherings.
The annual Big Chili Contest, which has been held at the P.A. Club for the last two winters, hit an all-time high last year, hosting 1,300 people and raising $16,000 for the Red Stocking Fund. The P.A. Club donates the space, provides volunteers, and gives a percentage of the bar receipts to the charity that provides Christmas gifts for Island children. This year the contest will be held Saturday, Jan. 24, starting at 11:30 am.
A new building was added behind the original club five years ago. Says Ms. Bergeron, "It just didn't hold us anymore. We've worked hard and the members just wanted to do something for ourselves." Ms. Goudy notes that much of the work was donated or discounted by members.
The original bar and soup kitchen (the dining hall) is used for events and can be rented out by members or their friends. A large, immaculate, commercial kitchen is also part of the old building, and there are plans to add a pizza oven. Volunteer members prepare food for football games as well as the fish fries, breakfasts, fundraising dinners, and other events.
In order to become a member of the private club, you need to be sponsored by two members and pay an annual fee of $100, or pay $50 and volunteer five hours a year. People over 65 who have been members for at least five years become honorary members and pay no membership fee.
The P.A. Club, located on Vineyard Avenue in Oak Bluffs, is open 365 days a year. The private club is open from 3 pm-12:30 am on weekdays, 12 noon-12:30 am on Saturdays and Sundays.
Gwyn McAllister is a regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.