THE FESTIVAL OF THE HOLY GHOST
By Betsy Wade Boylan
(From Historical Footnotes,
Festival of the Holy Ghost Parade.
Courtesy, Frederick J. Souza.
Hot dogs are the flavor of Labor Day for many people. For
me, since buying a house in Stonington Borough in 1970, the
taste of Labor Day is the taste of a soup with chourico in
it, served over bread with mint springing from the bowl --
Portuguese sopas. The sound of Labor Day is the Holy Ghost
Hymn going down our narrow street, passing the house and its
two flags: the Stonington Battle Flag and the Portuguese
national flag displayed in the old Portuguese section
because it's the weekend of Holy Ghost, the Festa do
At twilight on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, a
friend, Lou Souza, and I ease along the street behind a
parade following the crown, the focus of the festival, borne
by a sponsor chosen by lot. We watch the big flags at the
head of the march ripple in the Atlantic breeze that cools
the borough. Usually, Lou says it first: "Best night of the
year, kid." I always agree.
Lou loves Holy Ghost down on the point because that is
where childhood memories are rooted, where he grew up with
his eight brothers and sisters in a family that was rich in
everything but money. When he read In the Village,
Anthony Bailey's book about Stonington, Lou vigorously
disputed the description of the Holy Ghost music as "melancholy
Iberian rhythms." "Soulful," Lou said, "it's the soul music
of the Portuguese." Holy Ghost is Lou's soul festival.
I love Holy Ghost. When I first found it 17 years ago,
slipping shyly into a chair at the feeding of the masses at
noon Sunday, the salt in my blood moved along as if with the
tide. I wasn't sure they meant new residents when
they said they would feed anyone who stopped by, but I was
in a village on the ocean, the sky was an impending event,
and a dozen women whose forebears came mostly from the
Azores were setting down bowls of a soup like no other to
celebrate the end of a medieval famine. It was Azorean
vitality hanging on to its own for 140 years in the stony
soil of a Yankee village. The festival is like the curves
that Lou, a shipwright, puts into everything he makes,
however utilitarian, as if in defiance of New England lines
and corners. My children groan, but indeed my feeling may
have to do with my having been conceived at sea and born on
On the church calendar, homage to the Holy Ghost is paid
on Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter. Stonington,
marrying the spiritual to the practical, holds the festa on
Labor Day instead, to avoid conflicting with the Holy Ghost
celebrations of nearby towns. This means, of course, that
the festival is running while the Summer Establishment --
which embraces writers, Italians, Jews, remittance men,
artists, booksellers and a backbone of retired naval offcers
-- is going full tilt with a tennis tournament, swimming
races, plastic-glass cocktail parties and a bash at the
After I became friends with Lou at the Noank Shipyard, I
stopped feeling like an intruder in Stonington. We made a
standing date for Holy Ghost. It was to be a big one in
1973: Lou and his wife, Evelyn Nichols, had won the role of
mordome, or sponsor. Bound up with Lou's anger at the
Vietnam War and the couple's relief at their children's safe
return from the Pacific was his passion for doing the
religious and traditional thing right. After all, his own
father, Manuel, had been a sponsor in 1946, the year after
Lou, the baby of the family, returned home from the service.
Lou built a special table to display the crown in his
front room, and the couple prepared for a big reception
after Saturday's parade -- lanterns in the yard, food and
drink in vast quantities. Mary Gracia, Lou's sister, was
even working up a larger-than-usual batch of sweet bread for
At the end of August, Lou's brother John, a borough
burgess, died. The reception was never held, but the Souzas
fulfilled their duties at the festa. Our lobsterman neighbor,
Charlie Sylvia, died that year, too, on the Saturday after
Holy Ghost. Now, when Lou and I pass the two families'
houses, we think the same thoughts, of joy and regret.
The antiquity of the celebration has come to fascinate
me. No one is sure, it seems, just how long Stonington has
observed this favorite feast, cooking all night and parading
silver crowns north to mass at St. Mary's Church on
Wadawanuck Square and south toward Omega Street, past the
Both the Stonington Historical Society's chronology and
Henrietta Mello Mayer's 1977 Portuguese genealogy say the
Holy Ghost Society was formed in 1914, and a large, symbolic
crown was sent for from the Azores that year. But old
newspapers record still earlier festivals among "our
Portuguese residents," with a crown traveling a block this
way or the other, from home to home. No one doubts that
Portuguese from the islands, who were marrying and baptizing
in St. Mary's parish in the 1840's, planted their dedication
to the Holy Ghost at the same time they put down roots on
Stonington point, 100 years after Yankees began turning a
pasture-land on the Atlantic into a village.
The patron saint of the festival is Isabel of Aragon,
Queen of Portugal, who died in 1336 and was canonized in
1625. In her lifetime, legend has it, she was charitable to
a fault, giving away the wealth of the court to the poor and
causing some anxiety to her husband, Dinis. The festival
celebrates her greatest gift: During a great famine, she
prayed to the Holy Ghost for food and promised her crown to
the church in return.
Her prayers were rewarded. In one version of the legend,
terrible floods ended and a rich crop was harvested; in
another, ships arrived laden with grain.
Like the details of the legend, the dates of Isabel's
life vary, and she is also called Isabella. No matter. Those
with long ties to the festival are more concerned with
essentials: The aged, the ill, and the children are to be
fed first because that is what Saint Isabel did. And though
many families have crowns of their own in places of honor at
home, the crown brought over by the Holy Ghost Society is
not a church relic but the property of lay people,
accessible to all.
The crown spends most of the year with the "first
domingo," whose name was drawn at the previous year's
celebration. In the summer, it stays a week in the home of
each of the six other chosen domingos. The last week before
the festa, it travels to the home of the mordome, who
carries it in the parades on Saturday evening and Sunday
morning. At the club, it is the centerpiece of the front
room, which is filled with gifts to be auctioned to support
On Saturday, when I walk by before bedtime, the lights in
the Holy Ghost Club are burning. Sixteen or 17 members of
the Holy Ghost Auxiliary are putting the soup through its
paces and cooking and carving the whole bull that will feed
all comers, sometimes as many as 2,000.
After the feast, we sit in the yard of the club for the
band concert and the auction of gifts. For this, Clarence H.
Maxson, better known as Mickey, exercises his rich voice and
strong lungs for hours. Benjamin Souza, another of Lou's
brothers, records the donors and the prices that gifts fetch.
When evening comes and Maxson drawns the lots for next year,
he recognizes most of the people seated in the yard of the
club, babies drowsing in their arms. By this time of night,
the older kids -- blonde these days as well as brunettes --
are dashing helter-skelter around the yard occasionally
interrupting their revels to assist Maxson.
Even then, with the festival almost done for another year,
work is still the major component. Of the society's 350
members, about 100 put their names in for the drawing. If
their names are drawn and they don't get to be a domingo,
they must be prepared to contribute to the next auction. "Tres
bolos," Maxson sings out, his voice dropping an octave
between "tres" and "bolos" -- three loaves of massa sovada,
sweet bread. Or lobsters, crabs, meringues, needlework.
The sponsor is obliged to hold open house in the
designated week; indeed, the seven domingos are also
supposed to welcome the devout, allowing them to pray in the
room with the crown and giving soda to the children who
visit. The girls and young women in the sponsor family often
make dresses for the Sunday morning parade. Henrietta Mayer
remembers that when she was in school, the girls would wear
their confirmation dresses. Quiet memorial gifts to the
society to help cover the expense of Sunday's feast are
invaluable; the auction can be expected to yield about
$2,000 against the price of the bull, the other ingredients,
and the cost of the band for Saturday night and all day
"It is good luck to be a sponsor, but it is also a time
of testing, to see if you will do it right," says Alzira
Machado, Ben Souza's wife, who has been tied to the festa
through three generations. Her late father, John Machado,
who is venerated as a prime mover in the Holy Ghost Society,
pledged his home as collateral for the loan that got the
clubhouse in 1929. Her husband has been a society member for
50 years and has kept the auction accounts almost as long.
Her son Frederick, who says that at the age of 12 he "conned"
his father into letting him join the society, was a sponsor
as a child in 1961, and again in 1981. In 1973, his aunt and
uncle, Evie and Lou, accorded him the compliment of asking
him to carry the crown for them. Now 38, with a wife and two
daughters, he says he has at last mastered sweet bread.
External pressures make such commitment difficult, and
the festival has been shrinking. Lou Souza, who lives
outside the borough now, worries that the festival may shift
away from the paradise of his childhood; Henrietta Mayer
fears it may just fade away. When asked about threats to its
vital signs, the Portuguese cite aspects of 1980s life --
from women working outside the home, to young people with
other things on their minds, to "nobody is prepared to do
that kind of work," to the intermarriage of the Portuguese,
zoning disputes, the lessening of religious vocations, and
the popularity of fast food.
Portuguese Stonington is also enduring pressures from
within, from a booming real estate market. South of the
cannons is an area that was once virtually all Portuguese.
Mayer has recorded decade after busy decade of building,
expanding, buying and selling of close-packed houses on
Water, Omega, School, Diving, Hancox and Trumbull Streets.
One piece of research she did, she says, shows that in her
youth in the 30s, 350 families lived south of the cannons,
10 to 20 people in a house, with 500 children there. In
1970, the population of the entire borough, north and south
of the capnons, was 1,622. In 1980, the census put this
population at 1,228 out of the 16,220 people who live in the
larger Town of Stonington.
But it doesn't take a pile of census figures to know
what's happening. The real estate transactions, the 1980s
Domesday Book, show the Mellos, the Santoses, the Henrys or
Arudas, and the Sylvias leaving town. Houses that sheltered
big families, sometimes one family upstairs and one down,
became homes for single people, retired couples, reclusive
families who put up "No Trespassing" signs in an area so
built up that coughing in the street is virtually
When we bought our house, our neighbors were Charlie
Sylvia, who sailed the Helen & Bill solo, and the
Santoses. At the end of our street was the J & J Lobster
Mart, owned by the Henrys. One way or another, they are all
gone, and the people, generally pleasant, who live in their
places are not Portuguese.
The question is not so much ethnic as economic: The price
of a small house on a tiny lot in the old quarter will buy a
ranch house on a big lot in Pawcatuck, on the eastern edge
of Stonington Town, and leave plenty for retirement. "What
working class family is going to see $145,000 in one place
otherwise?" one town official asks.
Lou hears Mickey Maxson read the list of domingos and the
sponsor for the next year and frets over the number of
people no longer in the borough. But just like Lou and Evie,
who live out of the village, the families seem to retain
their ties to the festival. Two domingos last year, Mary Ann
Aruda and her daughter, Stacy Lynn, live in Providence. Yet
they fulfilled their roles as hosts to the crown at the home
of Mary Ann's father-in-law, John Aruda, on Water Street.
The family of last year's sponsor, Dee Dee Alfonso, who was
20, lived in the borough until four years ago, and now live
There is another internal development: The Rev. William
P. Loftus recently retired, of St. Mary's, says there is now
a greater turnout for the festival of Fatima, marking an
apparition on the Portuguese mainland in 1917. This festival
has been observed for only a decade or so in Stonington,
Father Loftus says. The members of the Fatima Society carry
their banner in the Holy Ghost procession, but the
traditions diverge because the Miracle of Fatima is
celebrated in the church itself and the organization has a
strong anti-Communist political component.
Holy Ghost, Father Loftus says, "is the mother of
festivals" for the Portuguese, who he estimates make up 40
percent of his parish. But he says the society needs to
recruit vigorously, especially among the young, to continue
to "give thanks and to celebrate the light, wisdom, peace
and love" represented by Espirito Santo.
Efforts are being made. Last year, on Saturday night,
jazz was heard outside the club. Not everyone is
enthusiastic about this development -- in my experience, it
is impossible to find a club with unanimous votes -- but
most agree that new solutions are needed.
The question of the band for the parades has also caused
some pain for the Holy Ghost Society. When I first began
following the parade, music was provided by the Acoreana
Band, which brought its instruments and Old World,
hand-copied music by bus from Fall River, Mass. In
pre-television days, Stonington had its own Portuguese band,
which Lou played in. At the 1931 festival, it was augmented
by one from Boston, making 55 pieces in all. After a recent
unhappy dispute over housing the Acoreana band for the
weekend, Stonington shifted to one from Cambridge, Mass.,
and then to the Stonington High School Band, which tried
hard but never could get the rhythm of the Holy Ghost Hymn
right. It didn't sound Bailey melancholy or Souza soulful:
It sounded like football game at halftime.
Now the Westerly Band is featured and, after some years'
practice, the hymn sounds more like the real thing. But I
yearn for the "old days," which gives me only a glimmering
of what my neighbors must feel, recalling fireworks and two
bands and decorations all down the street, a "big Holy Ghost"
and a "little Holy Ghost" and even two rival societies.
Symbols can be taken too far, but when I think about the
Holy Ghost procession passing under our two flags, I can't
help thinking about the red barn marked Chesebrough-Sylvia
Vargas with a wooden plaque, at the corner of Route 1 and
Route lA, the gateway to the borough.
The barn yoked Nathaniel Chesebrough, descendent of one
of the four founders of Stonington, who built a house on the
site in 1758, and the Sylvia & Vargas Ice Company, an early
immigrant family's enterprise that had prospered since the
time it was founded in 1847. The barn always seemed to me a
perfect symbol of how Stonington worked.
In September 1985, rot and weather dictated the
demolition of the barn. It gnaws at me, even though Rose
Sanda and Alzira Souza and Freddy Souza say that come Labor
Day, there will always be a Holy Ghost in Stonington.
This article originally appeared in slightly
different form in Northeast Magazine and is
reprinted with the permission of the Hartford Courant.