By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — While parishes throughout the Fall River Diocese have all celebrated some form of an outdoor picnic or summer festival and every Portuguese parish worth its salt has hosted a feast in honor of its namesake patron saint at one time or another, there’s only one event that can be simply identified as “the feast.”
Anyone who grew up within a stone’s throw of New Bedford will immediately know that “the feast” is regional shorthand for the annual Feast of the Blessed Sacrament — a four-day outdoor event that has evolved over the last century into the largest Portuguese feast of its kind in the world and the single largest ethnic festival in all of New England.
“We never called it ‘the feast,’ someone else started calling it that,” said Larry Abreu Jacques, president of Club Madeirense S.S. Sacramento and, by extension, the president of this year’s Feast of the Blessed Sacrament. “Instead of saying ‘the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament,’ they shortened it to ‘the feast.’ But it’s still the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament in my book.”
This year the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament will celebrate its milestone 100th anniversary on the weekend of July 31-August 3 at the Madeira Field grounds adjacent to Immaculate Conception Parish on Earle Street in New Bedford.
Founded in 1915 by four Azorean immigrants who, ironically enough, all shared the common and popular name of Manuel — or Manny, for short — the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament began as a spinoff of the religious festivals that were common in the villages of their home island and was first established to commemorate their safe passage to America.
“It’s based on the same feast that they have on the island of Madeira,” Jacques told The Anchor. “When the four founders came over (from the Azores), they got together here in New Bedford and they wanted to continue that tradition from their homeland and it’s continued on ever since. I don’t think they ever thought that it would last 100 years.”
Even though the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament originated as a religious celebration under the auspices of Immaculate Conception Parish, over the years it has since evolved into its own entity, completely organized, financed and supported by the Club Madeirense S.S. Sacramento.
“It started at the church — the first feast was held on the grounds (of Immaculate Conception Parish),” Jacques said. “But then the club started buying its own property over near the church and they started building and building and made it what it is today.”
“It’s not the way it used to be,” agreed Father Daniel O. Reis, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in New Bedford. “They used to have a procession, but many years ago it became a parade — that’s what they have now. There are no statues, there’s nothing religious about the parade.”
But many members of the Madeira Club are parishioners and Father Reis said the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament still retains connections to its religious roots.
“We open the feast with the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction,” he said. “They first come to the church on Thursday to begin the (four-day) feast, then they go over and officially open the feast. One of the highlights of the weekend is the Feast Mass, which is one of the main events at 11 a.m. on Sunday.”
An Azorean native himself from the island of São Miguel, Father Reis said the Portuguese immigrants have always tried to keep up these traditions from their homeland.
“We always had our own feasts in every parish in the Azores — especially during the summer,” he said. “The feast from the parish where I was born was just held last week: the feast of St. Anthony.”
Although many ethnic parishes in the United States have since abandoned such celebrations, Father Reis said they have been kept alive at Immaculate Conception Parish.
“We still have the annual Holy Ghost Feast and the feast of Señhor da Pedra,” he said. “Señhor da Pedra is a statue of Jesus similar to Señhor Santo Cristo, only it shows His full body, sitting on a rock. We still have the Señhor da Pedra procession two weeks after the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament.”
Apart from celebrating the Feast Mass and the opening day Benediction, Father Reis’ participation in “the feast” will be limited to marching in the parade on Sunday and enjoying some of the flavors from his native land.
“I’ll go over once in a while during the weekend, but I don’t stay there too long,” he said. “But I always go over and get something to eat.”
Boasting a menu of tasty ethnic food that would make any Portuguese mother proud, the 100th Feast of the Blessed Sacrament will be offering its usual assortment of traditional Portuguese cuisine such as bacalhau (codfish), caçoila (marinated pork), carne de espeto (barbecued beef), favas (beans in a spicy sauce), linguiça (grilled Portuguese sausage), and malassadas (deep-fried Portuguese dough coated with sugar).
And it wouldn’t be a Madeiran feast without vinho — traditional wine and sangria blends imported from the vineyards of Madeira.
All of these culinary delights will be cooked to order and sold on the grounds of the Madeira Field by volunteer members of the club or feisteros, which are, literally translated, “party people.”
Jacques said when the Club Madeirense S.S. Sacramento was first incorporated in 1953 to oversee the feast, you had to be of Madeiran ancestry to join.
Now anyone who volunteers or serves on one of the planning committees is eligible to become a member.
“Because it’s the 100th celebration this year, everyone gets to be on the committee if they are a member,” he said. “So we have 282 festeiros who are going to be here during the weekend.”
With many family members offering their time and talents to make the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament a reality, Jacques said the four-day weekend sometimes resembles a family reunion of sorts.
“It’s pretty amazing — we have some families who have been involved with this feast for three and four generations now,” he said. “I’m a third-generation member myself. My grandfather, my father and myself have all been involved. We try to instill in our kids the things that are important to us.”
“I would like to think that they’re just not celebrating a feast that marks 100 years,” agreed Father Manuel P. Ferreira, retired priest of the Fall River Diocese. “It’s an ongoing feast, but it’s also a renewal of not only their faith, their customs and their culture, but also a renewal of their brotherhood together.”
Father Ferreira, who served as pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in New Bedford from 1979 to 1992, said he still makes an effort to attend the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament every year.
“I was born here, but my grandparents were from São Miguel in the Azores,” Father Ferreira told The Anchor. “I was brought up with my grandmother and she always instilled in me a love for the Portuguese language and culture and I always appreciated that — and I still do. I learned all that from her.”
Admitting that some Portuguese traditions have fallen by the wayside due to a lack of participation, Father Ferreira said it’s good to know some things have continued to thrive.
“You hold onto traditions but once you let your faith go, your traditions go as well,” Father Ferreira said. “If you forget those traditions, it all goes down the drain. I’m glad they’re keeping this tradition alive.”
Along with the usual assortment of food, rides and outdoor games, “the feast” is also known for showcasing nationally-known entertainment acts — and this year’s milestone celebration is no exception.
Performing this year alongside traditional Portuguese folk dancers and fado singers will be rock acts like the Gin Blossoms on July 31; Blood, Sweat and Tears featuring former “American Idol” contestant Bo Bice on August 1; and country artist Phil Vassar on August 3.
As it has been throughout its 100-year-history, there is no entrance fee to attend the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament and admission to all live performances is free.
Throughout its history, men of Madeiran heritage and their families have made the feast possible through their generous contributions of time and labor. Supporting funds are also raised through the sale of food and drink at the feast, rental space paid by vendors on the feast grounds, and promotional events and items arranged by the club.
At this year’s feast more than 100,000 visitors are expected to enter the grounds during the four-day celebration. So, for the first time this year, the feast committee has recognized that some people may not want to battle the crowds.
As such, the feast grounds will open six hours earlier on Friday, August 1, beginning at noon.
“On Friday afternoon, many feast-goers are still at work, so parking will be easier and all of our most popular foods will be fresh out of the ovens,” said David Luco, feast vice president. “We hope this will attract a formerly set group of people who wanted to attend the feast without the crowds.”
Jacques said they had also extended an invitation to the Bishop of Madeira to attend this year’s feast, but he had a prior commitment.
“He’s sending us a letter of congratulations to be read during the Mass that weekend,” he said.
“Someone talked about bringing back the procession for this (100th) year, but they already had all their plans set up,” Father Reis added. “They’re probably going to do something more solemn for the 100th anniversary. I’m sure there will be more people involved this year.”
Even though he’s about to helm the landmark 100th anniversary Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, Jacques remains oddly nonchalant about the whole thing.
For him, it’s just another yearly opportunity to get together with family members and friends — albeit thousands of them — and carry on the tradition of his forefathers, the same way he’s always done since first attending “the feast” as a seven-year-old with his grandfather.
“We’re planning the same feast we always have. Nothing has really changed that much,” he said. “It’s still going to be the four days, and the same thing will go on that’s gone on for the past 50 years since I’ve been here.
“For me, it’s a labor of love. I do this because of my ancestry and my love for everything Madeiran.”
For more information about the 100th annual Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, including an updated schedule of events, visit www.portuguesefeast.com.