Where tradition and culture come together

Good food and good friends at the Feast of the Holy Ghost.

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Updated July 22

Despite the heat, a sizable crowd gathered at the Portuguese American Club late Sunday morning to enjoy the festivities of the Feast of the Holy Ghost. The celebration kicked off Saturday evening with dancing, food, and games.

The prize for braving the weather goes to the singers and, yes, believe it or not, dancers in the blazing sun, donning all-wool costumes and performing traditional Portuguese folk dances that migrated here with the population of fishermen and whalers in the late 1800s from the island of Madeira. 

Mike Canasta, director and president of the Club Madeirense S.S. Sacramento in New Bedford, assures me that the costumes are authentic to Madeira from over 500 years ago. Canasta himself didn’t start dancing until about age 47. Asked what makes one the director, Canasta, after jokingly saying, “No brains,” admits, “Passion!” He learned the dances from taking part in the group, which practices almost every Sunday. “It’s a very big commitment. We range from the young ones all the way up to the mid-80s,” he says.

The parade began in Oak Bluffs by the Steamship Authority, replete with a raucous fire truck brigade flashing lights and blaring sirens. They stopped at the cemetery as well to lay wreaths. By the time they pulled into the parking area at the P.A. Club, people were already milling about and chowing down on the traditional country soup made with linguica, which is heavily spiced with paprika, chilies, and garlic, just the stuff to add a little pizazz to the cabbage, potatoes, and onions. Other traditional foods abounded, including the much-beloved traditional malasadas, fried dough.

I met the three young people — Lizzie Robinson, Anthony Chick, and Joavanna Lowell-Bettencourt — who were industriously at work flattening out fist-size pieces of dough for the malasadas, which are considered “Portuguese doughnuts,” made from a ball of fried yeast dough but without a hole in the middle, and dusted with powdered sugar.

This treat was obviously a favorite, as I discovered when later visiting a group of children and adults in the shade under a row of leafy trees. There I met Alyssa Vieira, who comes every year, and said she loves the fried dough the best. And although she is an avid user, even she admitted that this year the “bouncy house” was a little too warm for the activity. 

“The soup is yummy, although today it’s too hot!” Alyssa said. Her mom Carol said she wouldn’t be having any soup that day, but she did bring some home to her husband. “My favorite part is watching the dancers, although I feel for them today in their wool outfits. I’m impressed they are keeping up the energy,” she shared. “We come here every year. I grew up with my family always coming here, so we’ve continued that tradition.”

Janet Johnson said she came for a special reason, explaining, “My father used to have a membership here and always loved it, and he passed away in November.” A friend was auctioning off a lighthouse in her father’s memory, and Johnson came to bid on it, since her mother wanted it. The money will be donated to the P.A. Club’s scholarship fund. Other auction items included a free week of summer camp donated by Island Spirit Kayak, and, like every year, local lobsters, and Portuguese sweet bread brought to the Island from New Bedford.

According to Noreen Flanders, assistant treasurer of the P.A. Club, money from the auction will help pay for the much-needed and expensive upkeep of the facilities. “We have more bills than income. We just need to increase our income, because this club is here for the whole community, and it is used often by everyone in the community.”

Just before I left, I met Warren Gosson, who traces his Portuguese heritage to the Rosa side of his family. Enjoying a bowl of soup, he informed me that there is a distinct difference between the Portuguese linguica and chouriço sausages, with the latter hotter than linguica. But Gosson assured me, “The food is the food, whether you’re in Portugal, or here or New Bedford or in Fall River.”

The Feast of the Holy Ghost has ancient roots, originating in the Azores. According to the Holy Spirit School and Church Festival website, it began when Portugal was in the grips of a famine, and Queen Isabella — who said the full Divine Office daily — fasted and attended twice-daily choral Masses, praying to the Holy Spirit that Portugal be spared from such devastating hardship. Soon after, ships arrived in the port of Lisbon with cargo that relieved the country from certain disaster. Isabel then summoned the citizenry of the country, both rich and poor, and they gathered in the royal chapel to celebrate Mass, after which all were served a meal of bread, gravy, and meat called “Sopas de Carne.”

Food was central to the festivities Sunday — and despite the heat, all the celebrants found something delicious to enjoy.

Updated with the complete story.