“I landed in Cottage City in February of 1882, after a short stay on the mainland,” wrote the late Manuel S. deBettencourt in an open letter to the citizens of Oak Bluffs. The letter is undated, but Oak Bluffs town archives show that Mr. deBettencourt was first elected selectman in 1925. The letter was a plea for reelection.
Mr. deBettencourt moved to this Island from another one, the island of Graciosa (which in his letter he spells Gracioza), one of the nine Azores islands of Portugal. According to this newspaper, Mr. deBettencourt brought with him from the old country a silver crown.
This weekend that same crown will come out again, at the annual Feast of the Holy Ghost.
A self-taught farmer whose written English does not reveal his foreign origins, Mr. deBettencourt took his first Island job at a farm. He earned $130 that first year and, at the end of it, opened his first bank account and deposited $118, his savings. He later used the money as a partial payment on a farm he eventually bought and named Cottage City Farm.
Mr. deBettencourt integrated himself into the Island community. He served on the Oak Bluffs board of road commissioners and later as a selectman with at least two years as chairman. Along with five men and two horses, he built the first road to connect Vineyard avenue and School street. His son was the first student of Portuguese descent to graduate from the Oak Bluffs High School.
At the same time, he quietly sustained the lifeblood of another, smaller community. “He was sort of a patriarch of all the Portuguese people on the Island,” his son Nelson told the Vineyard Gazette in 1970.
By 1910, the Portuguese population accounted for roughly 23 per cent of the Island population, according to a census from that time. Most lived in the down-Island towns, with the majority settling in the west end of Oak Bluffs, an area which soon earned the nickname Little Portugal. They came mainly from the Azores and found in Martha’s Vineyard a land similar to their own, where they could fish and farm to make a living.
The crown Mr. deBettencourt brought with him was a symbol of reverence for Queen Isabel, the 13th century Portuguese monarch and saint known for her generosity. Stories about Isabel have been passed on through the generations; they are staples in the Portuguese tradition and, as tends to happen, they have changed over time.
One tale goes like this: once a year, Queen Isabel, a commoner until she married the Portuguese king, would give up her jewels to feed the people of her country. Her husband, afraid she would bankrupt him, disavowed the practice. One winter day as she made her way down the city streets, she passed the king. He asked what she had in her dress and, instead of revealing the food she hid inside, she answered him with three words: “Roses, my lord.” The king looked for himself and, miraculously, white roses spilled out. The king fell to his knees in forgiveness and had two ships filled with grain and animals delivered to the harbor.
In another story, Queen Isabel is said to have planned a feast upon the completion of the church of the Holy Ghost. She set the tables with food for the poor and the king decreed the day a feast day, one for general rejoicing. Whatever the origins, the day became known as the Feast of the Holy Ghost, Festo do Spirito Santo in Portuguese, and the crown became a symbol for the generosity of the queen.
The day is celebrated throughout New England, across the country and overseas. When he moved to the Vineyard, Mr. de Bettencourt continued the tradition, opening his farm to his family and friends for a feast in celebration of the crown and all it stood for.
This weekend, that custom will continue in a two-day festival which begins tomorrow night at 5:30 p.m. at the Portuguese-American Club (PA Club) on Vineyard avenue in Oak Bluffs. All members of the community are invited to come hear live music and eat traditional food — sopa (the Portuguese soup), cacoila (marinated pork) and malasadas (fried dough). On Sunday, the celebration will continue with a parade beginning at 11:30 a.m. at the Oak Grove Cemetery. The parade will wind up Circuit avenue to the Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic church where a wreath will be laid in memory of club members passed. Where the parade ends, the eating and festivities will continue until sunset with a live auction, music from the New Bedford Bay State Band and traditional dancers.
Upholding years of tradition, the sopa is given away free on Sunday.
The feast will be held this year in memory of Joseph Nunes, a founding member of the Holy Ghost Society. Mr. Nunes’s parents moved to the Island from the Azores, and as a young man, he dug the hole for the club to be built upon. Mr. Nunes passed away in January at the age of 97.
“We built that hall, the PA Club, for $1,100,” he told Island historian Linsey Lee in 1999. “When we built the hall, we started our Holy Ghost Feast there.”
“It’s been there for years. We’ve had the feast for years. It’s an old tradition,” said Mary Ann Alwardt, 70, of Oak Bluffs. “Before that, it was in Vineyard Haven, where the annex is now by the Tisbury School. We always wore our little white dresses and we’d go and get our hair done. She’d do our hair in ringlets.”
There used to be two parades — one in Vineyard Haven, the other in Oak Bluffs — but over the years, the highlight has remained the same: the girls from the Catholic church who have received their first Communion march. Each year, one is crowned with the silver crown.
“No, I never carried it, but I was always in the parade,” said Mrs. Alwardt, whose mother and father immigrated to the Island from Portugal. This year, her granddaughter Amber Medeiros will carry the crown. “I’m on cloud nine,” the proud grandmother said. “I’m very, very happy about it.”
When she was old enough, Mrs. Alwardt began helping in the days leading up to the festival. “We always went up there Friday night to cut the vegetables, the potatoes and the onions for the Portuguese soup. You cut up the linguiça, the potatoes, thechouriço and the mint. You know the mint? Well, you have to throw that in. I’d peel the potatoes. My mother was very fussy about that. You had to make sure it was washed clean and peeled right,” she said. Mrs. Alwardt later worked in the crown house on the club grounds taking donations.
Festival organizer for the past 19 years is Patricia Bergeron. “I remember from when I was very little, you worked the feast, it was just what you did,” she said this week. “My aunt ran it. My other aunt ran it. Then it was my turn. My daughter has no interest and I would really like to pass it on. But, I don’t want to give it to just anybody.”
For years, Ms. Bergeron relied on the help of Mr. Nunes in the days leading up to the feast, during the festival and for the inevitable cleanup. “He was always there working. He did things behind the scenes, Joe,” she said. “He’d always be there to say, ‘You do good job, you do good job.’ Or, ‘No! That’s not happening! We never do it that way.’ He’d tell you. It will be very hard this year, very hard. He will be there, in all of our hearts.”
Joining together to ready the club for the feast is a tradition as rooted in the society as the benevolent work members do.
“It’s just who we are, the Portuguese people,” Ms. Bergeron said. “The old Portuguese community, it’s just who they are. Very benevolent, very caring, very taking care of each other.”
Last year, the society gave away $40,000 in scholarships to graduating high school seniors and they provide financial assistance to members of the community. “We provide help when people are in trouble,” Ms. Bergeron said. “We help them. We cook for them. We pay their mortgage. We raise money for different things. When somebody’s in need, we try to come to the rescue.”
This weekend’s festival is the only fundraiser the society holds for its own benefit all year. All the money raised will go to the club’s general fund.
Although the traditions remain, much has changed since the feast first began. “They used to kill their own cow and their pigs and people would donate the food to make soup,” said Kay Manning, the longtime companion of Mr. Nunes, the man she described as her other half. “It grew, so then [Joe] would go to New Bedford to buy everything wholesale. Now, we have a big auction. It’s a big operation now.”
She continued: “Years ago, I can remember when the boat would come from New Bedford with the marching band and probably 100 people would come with them and they would march off the boat and parade with our people to the church, up to the Catholic cemetery where they lay a wreath. All these people would march along and they would bring their own picnic and make a day of it. Not so many of them come now. The old timers, a lot of them are gone. Things change.”
Old timers — it was a phrase once used by Mr. Nunes.
“The Portuguese people at that time used to stick together, help each other,” he told Ms. Lee of the days when the festival began. “But the old timers are gone. The old timers, my age, they’re all gone. All gone.”
“He was the senior member of the club,” Ms. Manning said. “He’s been there all his life. He dedicated all his spare time to the club. He worked there as a bartender. And all the young people who have grown up, they looked to him for, well, ‘How did you do this?’ And he had a great memory and he would say, ‘That’s how we do things. That’s how we’ve always done this.’ His heart and soul was in the PA Club and he’s gonna be there in spirit.”
“He is the PA Club, I think. He was. He is,” said Ms. Bergeron. “He is a very simple man, very honest, very caring. He was everything we stand for. He just gives of himself totally. He was a simple man. It sounds so little to say that, but it’s so big. He always worked on a handshake. What he said was true. You never had to doubt it.”
On Saturday morning, Ms. Bergeron said, she will say a little prayer to Mr. Nunes to help her get through the weekend and then get to work. His presence will be missed even before that, however.
“Joe always did the cabbage, he was the cabbage man, because they’re huge, you know, and he knew how to cut them,” Ms. Manning said. “That was his job and he looked forward to it. But, I’m sure someone else will be there to do it this year.”