San Diego, CA: Portuguese Festa do Espirito Santo

Final Cover Photo

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!

More Saints on Parade

Saints on Parade

Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Queen Saint Isabel Float

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.

Boat Float

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!

Train Collage

Royalty Collage

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.

The Capela

Breads in the Capela

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.

Crowns on the Altar

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.

Mission San Juan Capistrano, CA: Saint Joseph’s Day and the Return of the Swallows Celebration

MSJC 2015 Title Photo

On the solemnity of St. Joseph, March 19th, we went on a little pilgrimage to Mission San Juan Capistrano, via rail. Of course our children loved that we went by train. We began our journey in prayer…

O Lord, please bless us on this day of pilgrimage. Open our hearts to experience the beauty of Your creation, and the heritage of your Church. Grant us the grace to deepen our faith, bond as a family, and be inspired by others who have brought you glory. Amen.

And because it was the solemnity of St. Joseph, we prayed the St. Joseph novena en route as well.


Mission San Juan Capistrano is a short walk from the train station, and it was a fairly easy journey with our three little ones, under age 5 (thanks to a stroller and a couple of baby carriers of course). And we were not alone visiting the Mission on this day because March 19th is a celebration of an event that made the Mission world-renowned, all thanks to the generous heart of a single priest.

Msgr. St. John O’Sullivan

Monsignor St. John O’Sullivan (his baptismal name, he’s not canonized) was diagnosed with tuberculosis soon after he was ordained a priest. Seeking a better climate for his decaying health, and not expecting to live long, he eventually found himself in charge of the then abandoned ruins of Mission San Juan Capistrano. While he camped out in Serra Chapel, he started restoring beauty to the buildings and grounds. A highlight of the Mission grounds for us, especially for my children, was the beautiful fountain Msgr. O’Sullivan constructed, with numerous lily pads, and very large, well-fed koi fish that my oldest was thrilled to feed.


O Lord, please help us to see the beauty of Your creation in all places, and help us to bring about and restore beauty in our homes and our communities, just as Msgr. O’Sullivan did at Mission San Juan Capistrano, for Your glory. Amen.

Msgr. O’Sullivan did more than begin restoration of the Mission; he also established the local parish that is thriving to the present-day. However, it is one small act that Msgr. O’Sullivan performed one spring day that propelled the Mission to it’s level of fame around the world.

The Tale of the Swallows

The story more or less goes that one day in the village of San Juan Capistrano, Fr. O’Sullivan noticed a shopkeeper destroying the nests of swallows, who returned to the region every spring to have their babies. The shopkeeper insisted that the birds were a nuisance, but Fr. O’Sullivan lovingly invited the swallows to come to the grounds of the Mission, where they could build their nests and be safe. In the years that followed, the swallows returned to the Mission every year, exactly on the Solemnity of St. Joseph. Even though the swallows no longer make their pilgrimage to the Mission today (supposedly due to the development of the area), March 19th, the Solemnity of St. Joseph, is still a festive day when this beloved story is celebrated. Msgr. O’Sullivan, whose health was restored during his time in San Juan Capistrano, and lived there for a couple decades, is buried in the cemetery next to Serra chapel.


Dear Msgr. O’Sullivan, thank you for bringing such beauty to the Mission here, and dedicating your hard work to this community for the glory of God. Please help us to do the same with the little piece of creation God entrusts to each of us. Help us also to love all of God’s creatures with the same generous love you showed the little swallows. May you rest in peace. Amen

Serra Chapel

While there is a lot to learn about at the Mission, the most inspiring place for me was Serra chapel. This is the only surviving chapel where the soon to be canonized Fr. Junipero Serra, founder of the California missions, has celebrated mass. How exciting to walk on the same tiles as a saint! Praying my rosary in the front pew, I couldn’t help but imagine Fr. Serra, and Msgr. O’Sullivan praying, thinking, and talking to God in the exact same spot I was sitting.

Blessed Fr. Serra, thank you for your hard work and fortitude in the face of many dangers and difficulties. Because of you my family and I are gathered here today in this beautiful and inspirational place that is your legacy. Please help me to also serve all of the people God has brought into my life with a selfless love, and to bear my crosses with joy. Amen.

There are countless things to learn about in this chapel, among them figuring out who all the saint statues are of and why they are here. One saint that is given special significance is St. Peregrine, who has a dedicated prayer room off of the main chapel. St. Peregrine was cured of cancer after he had a vision of Christ on the cross reaching down and touching his leg that was deteriorating from the cancer. Therefore, St. Peregrine is the patron saint of cancer. This prayer room is a beautiful spot to pray for loved ones who are suffering from this vicious disease.


Located just outside the chapel is the little cemetery where Msgr. O’Sullivan is buried, as well as a little garden with a fountain that is directly under the Mission bells. These historic bells are rung daily, and several times throughout the day on March 19th. It is an exhilarating, and very loud experience! Another highlight for my children!

O Lord, thank you for the joyful, loud noise of the bells of Mission San Juan Capistrano! Let their majestic ringing enliven our spirits to praise you always. Amen


St. Joseph Day

Along with stories of Msgr. O’Sullivan, the swallows famed migration, historical talks, and local performances, there was also a beautiful altar set up in honor of St. Joseph for the celebration of his solemnity. Blessed Fr. Serra named the mission for St. John of Capestrano, making the Italian city of Capestrano it’s sister city. In villages all over Italy the solemnity of St. Joseph is marked with great celebration and feasting in honor of St. Joseph rescuing Sicily from famine. Thus providing food to the hungry is a central aspect of this celebration. Here at the mission, a statue of St. Joseph sits atop a three-tiered altar (to represent the Trinity), filled with loaves of bread and bottles of olive oil, with bite-sized pieces for all to eat from. My picky eaters weren’t interested, but at least we were able to make a monetary donation to Fr. Serra’s pantry that provides food for those in need in the local community.



The Mission Basilica

Following the festivities at the historic mission, we were able to spend a little quiet time in Serra chapel and on the grounds. Then we ventured next door to the present day parish at the Mission Basilica, which is a pilgrimage site in and of itself. A basilica is given a special appointment from the Pope in recognition of an important significance that church has in Catholic history or culture. It becomes a special gathering place for pilgrims, with special dedication to our Holy Father, and bears the current Pope’s coat of arms. Inside the Mission Basilica, there are beautiful side altars for St. Peregrine, and St. Juan Diego, along with many other saints that are significant to the history and devotion of the people in this region. Even though the Basilica is a fairly new church, it is reconstructed in the style of the Great Stone Church at the historic mission that was destroyed in an earthquake in 1812.

Saint Pope John Paul II, thank you for proclaiming the Mission Church of San Juan Capistrano a basilica! Lord Jesus, thank you for bringing my family together here in this beautiful, awe-inspiring church. May our hearts grow deeper in faith, and may we remember to always pray for our Pope. May God bless Pope Francis. Amen.




After a nice dinner of Italian food, appropriate for St. Joseph’s Day, we headed home on the train, arriving just in time for the kids’ bedtime. We had an incredibly lovely day at the historic and modern Missions of San Juan Capistrano, and we definitely left inspired and enlivened in our faith. I pray that my children, even as young as they are, recognized some of the beauty and love that filled these places and the people connected to them.

Little Pilgrims Things to do at Mission San Juan Capistrano

  •  Bring a special bottle to fill with holy water at Serra chapel, (or support the Mission and buy a beautiful one at the gift shop).
  • Light a candle in Serra Chapel.
  • Find the statue of St. Francis on the grounds, perhaps bring a little birdseed to place on or near the statue for the birds.
  • Arrive early and attend Mass in Serra chapel.
  • Pray for those you know battling cancer in the prayer room dedicated to St. Peregrine.
  • Read the book “Song of the Swallows” by Leo Politi, also available for purchase in the bookstore.
  • Feed the koi fish daily for a small fee.
  • With young children, point out and thank God for the koi fish, the swallows, and all of the beautiful things that you can see at the Mission.
  • Take a photo or draw a picture of a saint you don’t recognize in Serra Chapel and research it at home.
  • Look into the activities offered at the Mission that help make history come alive!

Things to do at home

  • Celebrate the solemnity of St. Joseph! Pray the novena dedicated to him, make a donation to feed the hungry in his honor, and have Italian food!
  • Make a space in your home beautiful to reflect God’s glory, or pick up trash somewhere in your neighborhood just as Msgr. O’Sullivan worked to restore beauty to the ruins of the Mission.
  • Help God’s creatures by putting up a bird feeder, or bird bath, visit an animal shelter, or adopt an animal from a shelter.

For More Information Mission San Juan Capistrano  San Juan Capistrano Historical Society Mission Basilica in San Juan Capistrano