By Betsy Wade Boylan

(From Historical Footnotes, August 1987)

Festival of the Holy Ghost Parade
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 Espirito Santo.

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 an island.

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 Wadawanuck Club.

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 the occasion.

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 1814 cannons.

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 the festival.

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 Sunday.

"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 trespassing.

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 in Pawcatuck.

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.