Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Feast of the Holy Ghost

The following is a guest post by Johanna, a regular reader. She sent it to me and I loved it, and asked if I could put it up on the blog. Another guest post by Johanna, "The Lover of Truth," can be found here.

I grew up in a tiny coastal fishing village in southeastern Connecticut. When my parents moved there in 1962 it was inhabited by an interesting cross-section of humanity: primarily poor working-class Portuguese fishermen and their families, a few lower-middle class Navy families (like mine), a healthy dose of eccentric artists and writers from many different places, a few wealthy year-round families involved in local businesses, and a trickle of summer folks who came up from New York City and Washington DC. You could walk to anything you needed. There were five little local markets, a few package stores, a lumberyard, two hardware stores, a gas station, a few bars, three churches, a post office, a drugstore, a few gift shops, a small department store, a few restaurants, a dry cleaner, and of course, you could buy fresh fish and lobster right off the boats. The school was within walking distance. You didn't really need a car for much. There were lots of things to do all the time; it was a great place to grow up. I went to school with mostly second-generation Portuguese kids; they were the "blacks" of our community. I remember in the summers we would go for walks around the village after dinner and a lot of (the Portuguese) people down by the Point would sit out on their front stoops, enjoying a sunset, visiting with people walking by, and the atmosphere was lively, congenial, interesting and vital. It sure wasn't boring.

Every year on Labor Day Weekend, the local Portuguese community celebrates The Feast of The Holy Ghost. The Portuguese Holy Ghost Society owns a big Greek Revival three-story building whose side yard backs right up onto the back of our house. The feast commemorates a miracle of faith and unconditional giving: in the midst of a great famine and flood, Queen Isabella of Portugal sold her crown jewels to buy food for her starving people, and the flood waters receded. There are parades, band music, feasting, and a lively Portuguese sweetbread auction all weekend. Because we're perhaps the most intimate of their neighbors to this whole scene, we have been a part of it from the very first year we lived there. We've always loved it and looked forward to it.

One of the highlights of the weekend is "the feeding of the masses." The Daughters of Isabella prepare a huge meal of traditional Portuguese "sopas," a heavenly broth, with bread in it, and beef, potatoes, chorizo, cabbage, roasted onions and fresh mint. They feed everyone and anyone who walks through the door, all without charge. For a long time when I was a kid, we were too afraid to go wait in line and go into that big hall on the second floor and find out what all of this was about. So we just enjoyed the wacky, ethnic festival atmosphere that prevailed in the neighborhood all weekend. But when I was 15, one of our neighbors, who was Greek and felt like he fit in anywhere said, "Hey, let's just go." So we braved the long line stretching out the front door, down the steps and way down the block to Wall Street, went inside, and had our first meal of sopas. Believe me, it was totally incredible, not just the food, but the whole experience: of going even though we are not Portuguese, of being welcomed and embraced into this cacophonous joyous community as one of their own, of tasting the outpouring of service and unstinting, unconditional giving that this meal is... we ARE a part of this, because we dared to cross the boundary of our fear and to mingle as equals.

I make it a point to be there every year for this weekend. I am happy that even though it is 2005 and the once very strong traditions are fading somewhat from the years of my childhood, that this at least still exists in some form, and I am happy that this diversity still exists. It makes life so much more real and interesting.

But Stonington has changed a great deal in 40 years. In the renovation boom of the 70's, most of the poorer fishing families down at the Point sold their homes to wealthier out-of-towners who were looking for idyllic second homes by the sea. The village is now too expensive a place for my husband and I to own a home in, let alone even rent a modest apartment. At least my mother owns her house and can still afford to pay the taxes. It is now a wealthy bedroom community, with little diversity with which to recommend itself.

And, there are a lot of new residents to the village who try to make life difficult for the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society because they consider their festivals and feasts to be neighborhood annoyances that disturb their expectations of a perfectly noiseless, tranquil life in their expensive real estate, and which threaten "the value" of said property.

If they could just have the humility to be ordinary for a few hours, and go stand in that jostling line with all the other human bodies, and go inside and sit at large tables with neighbors they haven't met yet and eat this wonderful meal, to accept the gift, then they too could realize that they are totally a part of the community and would appreciate a depth and breadth to this place that perhaps they have not yet been able to connect with.

I think essentially this is the same issue at work in all of these things. We make barriers out of our fears. We keep ourselves separated from others. We often want our own way in things rather than having the willingness to consider life from the perspective of someone very different from ourselves.


loren said...

I never heard of the feast of the Holy Ghost before, that's interesting. But I did spend some time with the Portugese when I was stationed in the Azores.

Mimi said...

I've also never heard of that Feast, but what a beautiful article! Thanks Johanna!

Stacy said...

Very poignant!

Johanna said...

The Feast of The Holy Ghost is not an Orthodox feast day. Think about it as St. John Maximovitch a local (Portuguese/Catholic)saint's feast day celebrated by transplanted Azoreans in their new home, & when travelling, to celebrate with other Christians the feast days of their saints.