Portuguese Holy Ghost Society honors heritage with procession

Mary Smith becomes overcome with emotion as she hugs her cousin Chuck Fellows while Smith's husband, Robert, right, watches during the ceremonial presentation of the crown and scepter as the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society in Stonington Borough hosts their annual feast and celebration starting with a procession through the streets of the borough Saturday evening Sept. 1, 2012.
Mary Smith becomes overcome with emotion as she hugs her cousin Chuck Fellows while Smith's husband, Robert, right, watches during the ceremonial presentation of the crown and scepter as the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society in Stonington Borough hosts their annual feast and celebration starting with a procession through the streets of the borough Saturday evening Sept. 1, 2012. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

Stonington - There aren't so many people of Portuguese origin who still live in Stonington borough, a place they once dominated.

But there was no doubt Saturday evening, as a musical procession for the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society's Feast of the Divine Holy Ghost made its through the waterfront village, that Portuguese heritage is still an important piece of the cultural history of the community.

The annual feast, hosted from the society's headquarters on Main Street, in the heart of the borough, occurs every Labor Day weekend.

Saturday's procession, in which a crown and scepter representing the royal trappings of Portuguese Queen Isabel, who was canonized in 1652, were respectfully carried from St. Mary Church through the streets of the borough, ending at the Holy Ghost building.

Music was provided by marching members of the Westerly Band.

A Stonington police cruiser, followed by a color guard with American and Portuguese flags, led the way as the procession got started at 6 p.m. A few dozen people followed along.

"If you blink, you might miss it," said one of the many borough residents who gathered on the sidewalks in front of their houses, some holding up glasses of wine, to watch the early evening procession of marchers and band members.

The crown, centerpiece of the weekend events, was carried during the small parade by Abby Arruda of Griswold, whose father, Thomas Arruda of Westerly, is a past president of the Holy Ghost Society.

"I have been waiting 35 years for this," said a beaming Abby Arruda, after taking the crown safely to the society, where it was installed on a temporary altar inside.

"It's the highest honor for a Portuguese family," said Kim Handley, Abby's stepmother.

The Arruda family's place at the center of this year's feast was determined by a lottery at last year's events.

Names for who will keep the crown and scepter are drawn randomly. Seven names are drawn, and the crown and scepter move from household to household over the year. But the last person, or the seventh dominga, as the final holder of the crown is known, becomes the official host of the feast.

Abby Arruda's brother, Austin, was the seventh dominga, but his honor was shared by the family.

The crown resided for the last week at the Pawcatuck home of Abby Arruda's 84-year-old grandmother, who once lived in the borough.

"Hardly anyone lives here any more," said Thomas Arruda.

The Holy Ghost Society, though, remains a strong institution in the borough, with about 600 members, Arruda said. Membership rules were loosened about 20 years ago, he added, so that you no longer have to be Portuguese to belong.

But Portuguese traditions certainly prevail this weekend, including Saturday night's fundraising auction of Portuguese sweetbreads. Loaves baked by popular cooks are known to bring up to $100 at the auction.

Today, there will be another procession, taking the crown and scepter to St. Mary Church for a blessing. It will then be returned to the club hall.

At about 12:30 there will be a free public meal, featuring many special Portuguese dishes.

This "feeding of the masses," usually attended by several hundred people, is also held in honor of Queen Isabel, who was said to have facilitated a miracle end to a Portuguese famine in the 14th century.

The traditional story says Isabel offered her jewels, crown and scepter to the church if the floods causing the famine would end. They did.

And in the tradition of faith and charity, everyone is invited to come and eat today at the Holy Ghost Society on Main Street.

After the feast, they will draw names again to determine who will keep the crown and scepter over the coming year.

d.collins@theday.com

The Westerly Band accompanies the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society through the streets of Stonington borough on Saturday.
The Westerly Band accompanies the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society through the streets of Stonington borough on Saturday. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo
The crown of the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society is held over the head of Abby Arruda by her brother Austin during the society's annual celebration and procession through the streets of Stonington borough Saturday evening.
The crown of the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society is held over the head of Abby Arruda by her brother Austin during the society's annual celebration and procession through the streets of Stonington borough Saturday evening. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo
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