History and Traditions of the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament
By STEPHEN L. CABRAL
(Dr. Stephen L. Cabral of Fairhaven is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts
and received his master's and doctorate degrees in anthropology from Brown University. This paper is derived from his
master's thesis: "The Feast of the Blessed Sacrament: Reflections
on Pontuguese-American religious ritual, cultural change and ethnicity.")
On the island of Madeira, a Portuguese possession in the Atlantic, 390 miles
off the coast of Morocco, each Roman Catholic parish customarily observes
a festa in honor of its patron saint. On the first Sunday of August
in the parish of Estreito da Calheta the villagers worship the Blessed Sacrament,
the Spirit of Christ represented by the Eucharistic Host in a golden monstrance.
The feast day is celebrated by a Solemn High Mass in the village streets,
and a procession of the Santissimo Sacramento through the village streets.
In Madeira a feast is a social as well as a religious event. On the preceding
Friday and Saturday families gather in the village center to meet relatives
and friends traveling from the outlying areas or other villages. In addition
to participating in religious ceremonies villagers share meals, beverages
and gossip, Madeirans also sing and dance at these reunions.
A committee of four men, called festeiros, are responsible for preparing
the village for the festa. They decorate the streets that lead to the church
with a series of flagpoles adorned with banners of the Holy Order of Christ
and strings of colored lights. The arches erected over the cobblestone streets
are trimmed with faias, branches of shrubbery native to the island.
An alcove of faias is also constructed at the entrance to the church.
The festeiros decorate the alcove with colored lights and an assortment
of flowers. For the entertainment of the villagers during the festa, the
festeiros contract with a brass band and purchase a fireworks display. A
ceremonial meal for the committee is held after the High Mass on Sunday.
During the festa some families set up barracas, makeshift stalls
constructed trom poles and later decorated with faias, in the village center.
From the barracas families sell beef, bread, wine, fruits, basketry or embroidery.
A substantial percentage of the profit earned by families operating barracas
is often donated in honor of the patron saint to the church.
The Feast of the Blessed Sacrament celebrated annually in New Bedford for
60 years in the re-enactment of the Festa do Santissimo Sacramento observed
in Estreito da Calheta. Four Madeiran immigrants initiated the festa at
the Church of the Immaculate Conception during the first weekend of August
in 1915. The founders were Manuel d'Agrella, Manuel d'Agrella Coutinho,
Manuel Sardinha Duarte, all from the village of Estreito da Calheta, and
Manuel Sebastiao from Prazeres, the village due west of Estreito. Many members
of the Portuguese-American community in New Bedford currently believe the
Feast of the Blessed Sacrament was initiated as the fulfilment of a promise
made during a hazardous ocean crossing by the four founders while immigrating
to the United States. This account of the origin of the festa first appeared
in the New Bedford press in 1954, 40 years after the first observance. Subsequently,
in souvenir programs printed by feast committees in 1957, 1961 and 1973
this account was sanctioned as the historical origin of the Feast of the
In the course of conducting interviews with numerous individuals from the
Madeiran colony during the spring and summer of 1973, contrasting accounts
of the origin of the festa were discovered. There were three different types
of accounts. Each emphasized one aspect of the origin of the festa over
All versions of the 'promise' account emphasized the sacred cosmos wherein
the Blessed Sacrament stands in a special relationship to the Madeiran immigrants.
As a patron, the Blessed Sacrament is believed to intercede on behalf of
his supplicants to God, the Father. In this system of social control an
individual is in a precarious position. The survival or success of a person
can be assured only through the influence of a more powerful individual.
Privileges can be obtained only through the intercession of someone close
to the ultimate source of the needed benefits.
A second type of account contested the historical accuracy of the 'promise'
versions. Some Madeirans maintained that the four founders did not travel
to the United States at the same time or on the same boat. The earliest
Portuguese settlers in America came from the Azores as sailors aboard the
crews of whalers in the 1800s. By the turn of the century Azorean festas
were observed at parishes in New Bedford and Fall River. According to one
source, one of the founders was disappointed because there were no festas
celebrated by and for Madeirans. While attending one of the Azorean festas
with his companions, the Madeiran proposed that they organize a festa for
'their own people' in New Bedford. In this version a strong sense of regional
identity was the driving force behind the origin of the festa.
A third type of account emphasized the importance of collective action and
community among Madeirans who immigrated to the United States. In one version
the founders were homesick. They lived dreary lives because most leisure
activity and entertainment in urban industrial New Bedford did not conform
to a Portuguese view of proper family and social interaction. In Madeira,
the festa was the most significant religious and social event. It provided
a framework for men, women and children to engage in meaningful community
activity. According to this interpretation, the festa was initiated as a
vehicle for re-establishing a sense of community.
Each account of the origin of the festa implied that the Feast of the Blessed
Sacrament in New Bedford attempted to preserve basic values of Madeiran
culture. In one case, the importance of the Blessed Sacrament was emphasized.
In another case a sense of regional identity was asserted. Finally, the
festa was viewed as a vehicle for promoting social integration as a means
of coping with life in a foreign land. In keeping with the third approach,
some anthropologists would describe the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament as
a rite of intensification that performs a social function. The festa restores
the equilibrium of the Madeiran society by intensifying social interaction
after a distrubance in the social system. Most Madeiran immigrants were
either gardeners, herders or fisherman in their native social system. The
problems of a language barrier in a new country, working in cotton mills
and living in an urban environment upset the traditional forms of Madeiran
social expression. By virtue of the language barrier most Madeirans were
alien to other people in America and by virtue of an urban- industrial social
setting in New Bedford many Madeirans were estranged from each other. Through
the observance of a festa the primary institutional form of Madeiran social
expression was restored. This enabled the Madeirans to adapt to their new
One should keep in mind that the three differing accounts of the origin
of the festa were individual inerpretations formulated after the fact. The
festa, as a historical event in 1915, is significantly different from the
collection of interpretive accounts in 1973. The degree to which the three
perspectives offered by Madeiran sources influenced the founders of the
Feast of the Blessed Sacrament cannot be accurately reconstructed. Furthermore,
even if Agrella, Coutinho, Duarte and Sebastiao were alive today, it is
unlikely that a researcher would find a perfect agreement based on their
recollections of their part in the origin of the festa.
From 1915 through 1945 the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament reflected Old
World Portuguese customs. The neighborhood surrounding the Church of the
Immaculate Conception and the adjoining grounds were decorated with flags,
banners, evergreen arches and colored lights. Portuguese-style foods were
sold from barracas managed by the festeiros and their families. There were
brass bands and fireworks. The most significant events of the festa during
this period were devotional services conducted in the church. Among these
were a Vespers service on Friday, a Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament
on Saturday, and on Sunday a Solemn High Mass of thanksgiving and a Procession
through the neighborhood streets.
The principal reason the festa emphasized Old World customs for 30 years
was the membership requirements for the committee of festieros. Only Maderian
born adult males or their male descendants were allowed on committees. From
1915 through 1945, committee membership was composed primarily of Maderian
born adult males who immigrated to the United States during the first quarter
of the 20th Century. This feature provided stability. These immigrants share
a common definition of a good Maderian festa. Although the Old World atmosphere
and religious ceremonies were retained for 30 years, the festas changed.
In 1915 the attendance was estimated at 2,000. By the 1930s the three-day
observance attracted 15,000 participants. The feast committee responded
to this growth by expanding its membership from four to 10 men in the 1930s.
As the number of people involved in observing the festa grew, the accomodation
of larger crowds necessitated an expansion of the feast grounds. The festieros
petitioned the New Bedford School Committee and obtained permission to use
the Ottiwell School grounds. This area was located one block from the church.
The committee erected barracas on the lot behind the white-walled and red-tile-roofed
school during the festa. In the 1930s, there were a dozen barracas in operation
and three brass bands in concert at different points on the expanded feast
The large crowds also affected the ceremonial activities of the festa. Many
non-Portuguese and non-Catholic persons visited the feast grounds to witness
the 'quaint' ritual observances of the Maderians. Many of these outsiders
were residents of the North End acquainted with Maderians from work or through
business dealings. At the feast, most of the outsiders did not give the
Blessed Sacrament its proper respect when it passed through the streets in
Processsion. Proper respect involved genuflecting on two knees. The naive
ignorance or personal convictions of the outsiders was viewed as a sacrilegious
offense by devout Madeirans and clergy.
In response to this situation, the pastor of the Church of the Immaculate
Conception and the Bishop of the Diocese agreed the Blessed Sacrament should
no longer be carried in procession through the streets of New Bedford. In
1932, the pastor advised the festeiros to keep the Blessed Sacrament inside
the church where only Madeirans or other Portuguese- Catholics would offer
proper devotional worship. Beginning in that year, the Procession of the
Blessed Sacrament was conducted inside the church after the Solemn High
This ceremonial modification was important because the Procession of the
Blessed Sacrament through the streets of the Madeiran colony was the climax
of the festa. The Procession was the only religious ceremony in which a
majority of the Madeirans participated in the invoking of the Santissimo
Sacramento for their intercession and protection. The most sacred symbol
of the festa was taken away from the Madeirans and confined to a service
where only a small percentage of the people could participate actively.
The festeiros countered the effects of this abrupt change in the traditional
ritual by replacing the Procession with a parade. In 1932, a parade that
resembled the Procession in all aspects, excepting the presence of the Blessed
Sacrament, was conducted on Sunday afternoon.
In the 1930s, a pattern loomed in the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament. As
the public domain of the festa expanded, the religious domain diminished.
This pattern was further developed in the years that followed World War
II. During the post-war years, the appearances of the festa and the emphasis
on the Blessed Sacrarnent underwent considerable change. The committees
increased their membership to 50 men. Because membership was traced through
the patriline of Madeiran-born men, many of the new committee members were
the American-born sons of immigrants. The background and personal history
of second generation festeiros reared and educated in the United States
was considerably different from that of their immigrant fathers. This difference
in personal and collective experience contributed to the introduction of
many new features that modified the celebration of the festa.
The traditional Portuguese procession was transformed into a contemporary
parade. Symbols of American nationalistic fervor, which characterized parades
during the war and its aftermath, were added to the procession . There were
political figures, veterans groups, military color guards, drum and bugle
corps, floats, motorcades and beauty queens. The introduction of these elements
enabled younger festeiros, who were veterans, to affirm their allegiance
to their new homeland. A car raffle was added to the festa in 1948. The
introduction of the car raffle and the parade encouraged the establishment
of new social relations between Madeirans and the non-Portuguese people
of greater New Bedford.
Although the festa initially renewed traditional, Portuguese customs, the
event was becoming a channel through which aspects of American culture were
communicated and transmitted to the elders and new waves of Portuguese immigrants
by second generation, Madeiran-Americans.
In 1951, an unprecedented venture was undertaken by some officers and members
of the feast committee The ever- increasing attendance at the festa necessitated
further expansion so part of the proceeds from the festa was invested in
a piece of private property on the block north of the Ottiwell School. In
previous years all the proceeds from the festa were donated to the church,
missionaries and charities in New Bedford and Madeira. Members of the 1951
committee saw their investment as a reassurance that the Feast of the Blessed
Sacrament would have a permanent home in the future. In order to secure
the deed to the property the Club Madeirense S.S. Sacramento was incorporated
in 1953. Membership to this new association was open to all former festeiros.
The chief purpose of the corporation was to assist in the promotion and
celebration of the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament with the committees nominated
for that purpose.
During the 1950s, committees continually modified their observance of the
festa in order to make it distinctive and more prestigious from that observed
the preceding year. In 1954, mass-produced cooking was introduced. In 1955,
a carnival was added. That year's committee also purchased property located
on the same block as the 1951 acquisition. In 1956 and 1957, the committees
purchased additional lots that adjoined the other holdings. The festeiros
called their land Madeira Field. The S.S. Sacrament Club, which had been
given all the deeds to Madeira Field, became responsible for maintaining
half a city block.
From 1958 through 1975, feast committees offered money or material gifts
to the S.S. Sacrament Club after the traditional donations to the church
and charities were made. The S.S. Sacrament Club used the gifts to maintain
and to improve the feast grounds. Included among these improvements were
a memorial stone to the founders, a field stone and firebrick barbecue pit,
a steel framed aluminum corrugated pavilion, a kitchen complex with sinks,
grilles, a sixteenburner stove and freezer, toilet facilities, a clubhouse,
a stage and bandshell, and bordering the perimeter of the recently black-topped
property, concrete buildings used as barracas. In addition to Madeira Field,
the feast grounds currently spread over a four-block area where 125,000
people gather to celebrate the three-day event.
The outward appearances of the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament underwent
a radical transformation after World War 11. The Americanization of second
and third generation Maderian-Arnericans not only involved the expansion
and modernization of the feast grounds, but also included a reformulation
of traditional Madeiran values. Many old timers, Madeirans who immigrated
at the turn of the century, view the current festa as a sacrilege. These
persons insist the festa was genuinely religious in the past when the Blessed
Sacrament was respected first and foremost. As the festa became more of
a public event, the importance of the Blessed Sacrament was de-emphasized.
In recent years, second and third-generation, Madeiran-Americans have served
on committees primarily to meet their traditional ritual obligations and
to assert their ethnic identity. Nevertheless, one cannot state absolutely
that the current celebration of the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament is sacrilegious
and has no religious significance for the Madeirans who continue to participate
in the rite.
For many old timers, who still observe the festa, the Blessed Sacrament
is not forgotten. A senior member of the S.S. Sacrament Club who immigrated
in 1917, interpreted his working on the bayberry alcove in front of the
church doors as a token of respect, sacrifice and tribute to the Blessed
Sacrament. As I worked alongside him in 1973, he commented: "You know-as
long as I live, I'll work for this feast. My blood belongs to the festa.
Remember, the Santissimo Sacramento helps the Madeiran people. You better
Old timers do not ignore the modernization of the festa.
A Madeiran, who had attended the original festa in 1915, watched the workers
in front of the church. When everyone took a break to drink a beer that
was carted from Madeira Field in a wheelbarrow by a festeiro, I approached
the old-timer. I asked him what he thought about the decorations. "It's
going to be nice, but it's not like the old days. The festa was religious
then. Today, it's a business I don t like it as much any more, but I still
come. I still get sentimental." I returned to the alcove to work with
some second generation festeiros. They were fixing bayberry branches into
chicken wire nailed to the frame of the alcove. These preparations, which
the old-timer revered, were discussed in terms of the workday world. The
younger festeiros saw their labor as being indispensible for crowds of 125,000
to eat Portuguese food; buy raffle tickets, and enjoy the entertainment
at the festa. One of the festeiros who had served on a committee in the
1950s, struck up a conversation. "You're too young to remember the
old days. Has anyone told you about them? The feast was much better then.
We didn't have all of that." The man pointed to Madeira Field. "In
those days we had the feast on the church grounds and across the street
in that parking lot. We had four bands, some fireworks and lots of linguica
and beer. That was about it." "Do you think that it's any better
serving on this year's committee?" I asked. "I'll tell you. If
my father weren't alive I wouldn't be here doing this. I'd say to hell with
it. My father believes in this feast though. So I'm doing it for him. It
would be a vergonha if I didn't."
During the 1973 feast, I was seated at a picnic table under the pavillion
with some festeiros. We were eating a hot meal of carne guisada, stewed
beef with potatoes, onions and rice. An S.S. Sacrament Club officer joined
our group. One of the festeiros, who was a recent immigrant from Madeira,
began questioning him in Portuguese. "Hey J---! Tell me something.
Is this a religious feast or an ethnic feast?" "That's a tough
question. It's sort of a religious feast and it's sort of an ethnic feast,
too. We still keep the tradition of attending Mass and Communion as a
group on Sunday. But we also emphasize that this is a Portuguese feast where
people speak a certain language, eat certain foods and sing and dance to
native music. "I don't think there's a clearcut answer one way or the
other. Let's ask our anthropologist over there. He's the one doing the study."
On Sunday, I attended the ceremonial meal the committee shared after the
Solemn High Mass. Before everyone was seated, I approached one of the festeiros
and expressed my surprise the Blessed Sacrament had not been displayed on
the altar or brought out in Procession after Mass. The man responded: "I
think someone from the Association approached the pastor about that, but
he has a mind of his own. He hasn't been very happy with our feast over
the years. "Besides, when you're on the committee, you're just as happy
if there is no Procession of the Blessed Sacrament. It takes too much time.
We'd be late for the parade. It's no big thing. Only the old-timers get
excited about that."
These conversations revealed the old timers recognized the modernization
of the festa but preferred to view the preparations for the 1973 event in
terms of the Blessed Sacrament. Younger festeiros, who were raised by and
celebrated the festa with old-timers, were aware of the traditional religious
significance of the Blessed Sacrament. Nevertheless, second and third generation Madeiran-Americans did not emphasize the importance of the Blessed Sacrament.
The Madeiran-Americans born, raised and educated in New Bedford, behaved
in situations that required making sense of oneself in a manner that was
quite distince from the experiences of people who immigrated from Madeira
during their early adulthood. As a result the second and third generation
of festeiros see no conflict in referring to their festa as both a religious
and an ethnic event. Both features are obviously present in the festa as
far as they are conccrned. Although these festeiros do not acknowledge the
Blessed Sacrament as readily as the old-timers, the younger men regard themselves
as Madeirans who are loyal to the traditions of their forefathers in that
they observe the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament.