The Portuguese community in Gloucester carries on a centuries-old tradition this month with special Crowning ceremonies at Our Lady of Good Voyage Church.
Last Sunday, the first of two Crownings took place at the church, giving thanks to God. A special crown was carried in at the beginning of the Mass and placed at the front of the church. When Mass ended, dozens of parishioners lined up to have their turn at the altar, where the Rev. Eugene Alves held the crown over their heads as they prayed for the blessing of the Holy Spirit.
The history of the Crownings dates back to the 14th century, when Queen Isabella of Portugal — a devout Catholic who had great compassion for the poor — instituted the annual practice of crowning one of her subjects as imperator, or king for a day. Last Sunday, Michael Carter of the Holy Name Society held that post. This week Manuel A. Nunes of the DES Portuguese American Club, which is named in honor of the Holy Spirit, will hold that title for the third year in a row.
Each Crowning includes prayers and recitations of the rosary, as well as a Sunday Mass, culminating in a festive meal, featuring a special Portuguese sweet bread as well as fellowship among those who cherish the traditions held closely here by Azorean immigrants.
Nunes and his wife, Alexandrina, both come from the island of Pico, part of the rugged Azorean archipelago.
"This was a tradition from my city," said Alexandrina Nunes. "Pico is a volcanic island and one time there were big earthquakes and houses went down. The people asked the Holy Spirit to stop the earthquakes. So every year in my town, and in towns all over the island, the people hold these celebrations."
Tomorrow, the day will begin with a parade at 9 a.m. at the DES Portuguese American Club on Prospect Street where children will be dressed in white, with many carrying red carnations. The adults will walk with banners and music through the neighborhood of Portuguese Hill to Our Lady of Good Voyage for the 10 a.m. Mass, followed by the Crowning and feasting.
Other Portuguese communities in Massachusetts, as well as West Coast communities in California, hold similar celebrations to carry on similar traditions the immigrants brought to their new homeland more than 100 years ago. They often are held around the time of Pentecost.
A thankful Capt. Mesquita
Lee Harty of Gloucester knows well the story behind the first Crowning because she is the granddaughter of fishing Capt. Joseph Mesquita, who brought the ceremony here from the Azores. Mesquita arrived in Gloucester from the Azores at the age of 15 with 50 cents to his name. He had worked aboard a boat to earn his passage. He became a fisherman here.
In 1898, he and his crew gathered for a special service at Our Lady of Good Voyage Church, home to the Portuguese fishing families, to give thanks to God for their safety and well-being. At the conclusion of the service, the crewmen gave out loaves of sweet bread and flowers. Two years later, those prayers would be needed.
Harty grew up hearing the story of her grandfather's close brush with death on the open seas.
On the night of Oct. 27, 1900, the captain and his crew aboard the Mary P. Mesquita, nearly drowned when a Cunard steamer, the Saxonia, collided with their fishing vessel, ripping it in two. The wooden schooner sunk in a heavy fog in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. One life was lost when Alfred Brown, the cook, could not be found. The others escaped in dories.
"My grandfather went below to get (Brown) off the boat but he could not find him. This is what a captain has to do, to make sure everyone is off before he leaves the boat. But they never found the cook, who often had strange dreams about boat disasters, including one bad dream that occurred before this accident," Harty said.
But as her grandfather bobbed in the water, he prayed that if he his crew were saved he would send to Portugal for a crown, explained Harty of the cherished family story.
While the fishermen traveled home, their families in Gloucester prayed for their safe return to shore.
"So incredible had been the rescue, that Capt. Mesquita vowed to make the 'Festival of the Crowning' a yearly event in his parish," according to the church's 100th anniversary book of 1989.
Mesquita commissioned a silver crown to be made in Portugal and blessed by Pope Leo XIII, which he gave to the church. It arrived in time for the crowning ceremony on Pentecost Sunday 1902. The DES Club began its Crowning 25 years later around 1927. The Crown usually rests on the left hand side of the altar.
Harty, the daughter of fishing Capt. Abel Doucette, remembers when she was a young girl how she and her friends would don white dresses and white shoes for the procession to church for the Crowning celebrations.
"As long as we could walk, we could march in the procession," she said. Many years later, as a young mother, her two daughters too would take part in the tradition.
During World War I, Capt. Mesquita again faced another hair-raising adventure at sea, this time at the hands of a German commander who gave the captain and crew only minutes to get off the boat and into dories before sinking their fishing vessel. The men, with few provisions, rowed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and from there returned to Gloucester.
Even though her grandfather never learned to read or write, Harty loves to share a story of when President Franklin D. Roosevelt 's wife wanted his autograph when they met in Washington, D.C., in 1933. Mesquita was part of a delegation which sailed to the nation's capital aboard the Gertrude L. Thebaud to discuss with Roosevelt the economic plight of Gloucester fishermen. On meeting the first lady, the captain had kindly declined her request, according to Harty. When she insisted, he pulled out a tiny rubber stamp with an 'X' on it and an ink pad and proceeded to stamp the paper, beneath which he made a hand-written 'X'.
Although he died later that year, his story and the Crowning tradition here in the nation's oldest seaport will be preserved as part of Gloucester's colorful history.
Roosevelt was so impressed with the simple and devout Portuguese fishing captain he met from Gloucester, that after Mesquita's death he sent a personal telegram of sympathy to the captain's wife, Mary, on behalf of he and the first lady.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at email@example.com.