On this year’s feast of Pentecost, we attended a 700 year old tradition that is celebrated throughout Portugal, and the Portuguese diaspora – Festa do Espirito Santo.
As a small child, I remember going to Festa with my Portuguese grandmother in Arcata, California. After morning Mass, a beautiful but simple parade of statues and young girls dressed in what I suspect were their first communion and confirmation dresses traveled to the community hall. There we had a meal of sopas, and my grandmother told me the story of Queen Saint Isabel. Then I was gleefully spun around the dance floor by the sweetest Portuguese grandfathers who were enlivened by the music of their homeland. To me it was the epitome of celebrating our rich Catholic faith, and being part of a close-knit community.
I also attended many Festas in my hometown of San Diego, where the Portuguese community is significantly larger, and significantly more wealthy. Here the legacy of Queen Saint Isabel is able to feed hundreds of people, the devotion to the Holy Spirit is clearly displayed, and our beautiful faith is literally put on parade! This year would be my children’s first Festa!
Come Holy Spirit and inspire us as we attend Festa do Espirito Santo. Help us to recognize the faith and beauty that unifies this community. Inspire us to be a servant of God to all, especially the poor, as Queen Saint Isabel was. And help us to not be ashamed of our faith, but be willing to let others come and see it as we live it out each day. Amen.
The Festa Parade
We headed for Avenida de Portugal, a street in San Diego actually named for the Festa parade, with St. Agnes Catholic Church at one end, and the Portuguese Community Hall at the other. Of course there were marching bands, local dignitaries riding in cars, and talented dancers with amazing stamina to dance throughout a parade. But what made this parade unique and exciting was seeing a lot of Catholic culture represented in everything from plaques, statues, and giant rosaries, to actual people dressed as saints, often riding floats!
There were many church societies, the church’s Boy Scout troop, and the Knights of Columbus with their swords at their sides also marching up the street. Then, one group of unique significance to this community was the numerous sea captains and boat owners from the tuna fishing industry that the Portuguese immigrants helped establish, and dominated in San Diego. Definitely the most impressive float of the parade was the fishing boat memorial to those fishermen who lost their lives at sea.
Of course the part of the parade that steals the show is the countless courts of kings, queens, maids, escorts, and others dressed as royalty in honor of Queen Saint Isabel. Building upon years of the community pouring its resources into this celebration (it’s the oldest ethnic celebration in San Diego), today’s Festa royalty is a sight to be seen! And of course there is plenty of religious symbolism sewn into every detail – quite literally!
The reason royalty plays such a huge part in this event dates back to the saint that inspired it all, Saint Queen Isabel.
Queen Saint Isabel
This Portuguese Queen is so beloved that even today she inspires many parents to name their baby girls after her (my own daughter one of them). She reigned during the 14th century and is named after her relative, Queen Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, who coincidentally is known for a similar miracle and unfailing dedication to serving the poor.
Queen Isabel would often take bread from her own table and venture out into the streets to feed the hungry. As her husband, King Denis learned of her deeds, he attempted to abate them by confronting her and demanding she open her cloak to reveal the hidden breads. She said a prayer before opening her cloak in obedience, and when she did beautiful roses fell out instead of the suspected loaves, and thus she was never caught and able to continue her ministry to the poor in the face of her husband’s greed.
Once when a terrible famine had gripped the region, Queen Saint Isabel had depleted her personal treasury to give to the poor, with only her crown, the symbol of her royalty, left in her possession. So one morning during Mass she dedicated it to the Holy Spirit and placed it on the altar. Then as she was leaving the church she saw several boats arriving with grain to relieve the starving population. Since then on the feast of Pentecost, the day all Catholics celebrate the Holy Spirit, the Portuguese community pray for and celebrate The Holy Spirit’s blessings on their community.
In San Diego there is a small capela (chapel) next to the Portuguese community hall that houses the crown during Festa that is re-dedicated to the Holy Spirit each Pentecost by the young woman chosen to represent Queen Saint Isabel. It sits atop a platter that represents the people, who are called to serve others as their beloved saint did. And here anyone can come to make a donation of money or bread.
Dear Queen Saint Isabel, please pray for us to have the strength and courage to give of our treasures to those in need. Help us be the face of Jesus to everyone in our community. Help us to bring light and hope, and to not be discouraged by others who do not see value in our work. Amen.
Coronation & Solemn High Mass at St. Agnes Catholic Church
The parade route concludes at St. Agnes Catholic Church, one of the first 5 Catholic churches in San Diego, built to serve the predominantly Portuguese immigrant community established there in Point Loma. In 1933, the now standing St. Agnes church was constructed thanks to the contribution of 15 boats, the pledged wages of the fishermen, and of course many hours of their labor. A fun fact about the church is that atop the bell tower is a cross that was illuminated to be a beacon to the men at sea.
Thank you Lord for building such a strong and faithful community, past and present that has been dedicated to serving you. May we remember and be inspired by the charitable sacrifices of those who built this church, and all churches that were such a source of pride for their communities. May we love and take pride in the holy places that we are blessed to be present in. Amen.
The previous year’s queen waited in front of the church in anticipation of the new Festa queen‘s arrival at the conclusion of the parade. After they all made a grand entrance into the church, the previous year’s queen handed the crown to the new queen. Then the priest conducted the coronation, crowning and blessing the new queen. The crown was then placed on the altar for the duration of Mass.
A solemn high Mass follows the coronation, complete with brass accompaniment and an incredibly talented Portuguese choir. The parish pastor then gave a beautiful homily of being the face of Jesus in the community.
Feasting, Dancing, and Music Making
Back at the community hall, dozens of cooks prepare to feed the hundreds who are welcomed to a free meal in honor of Saint Queen Isabel. Since their work keeps them from attending Mass, the night before the priest blesses the kitchen staff and food with the crown and the queen present.
The lines for food are long, but as we waited with our three small children for lunch, one of the volunteer servers plucked us out of line, and seated us in the volunteer dining room. She was an angel, and even said grace with us before we dug into the traditional meal of Portuguese sopas (a type of cabbage soup with soaked sweet bread), beef, and a boiled potato. All three of my kids actually ate it! And my taste bud’s memory was pleasantly jogged. However, this was the first Festa I was of age to have an accompanying glass of red wine! It was a wonderful meal. Luckily we were able to share it with a homeless man who was seated at our table. How wonderful to see the legacy of Queen Saint Isabel actually lived out. After the meal we had a traditional desert of malasadas!
Thank you Lord for letting me share this food, and this tradition of Festa with my family. Thank you for the hospitality that we experienced, and the company of others who remind us that we are all God’s children. Amen.
Outside the hall, the parade was making its way back. At its conclusion the Queen placed the crown inside the Capela and white doves, representing the Holy Spirit of course, were released.
For the rest of Festa there were music and dance performances, a bazaar, and that night was a formal dance in celebration of the Festa king and queen. But my little family and I had tuckered out after the traditional Portuguese dance performance and headed home.
Thank you Portuguese community of San Diego, and especially the Holy Spirit, for showing my children and the community again that our faith is beautiful and something to be proud of.
Little Pilgrim’s Things to Do to Celebrate Festa do Espirito Santo at Home
- Include all your family members, and maybe some friends too, and parade any statues you may have in your home to a place of honor and decorate with flowers.
- Play dress up with a woman or girl in your family to play Queen Saint Isabel and reenact her famous miracles.
- Read the children’s picture book Roses in the Snow: A Tale of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, and tell how it is so similar to Saint Isabel’s story.