Jamestown Historical Society

Tradition of Portuguese crown dies with younger generation

This article was written by Rosemary Enright and Sue Maden for The Jamestown Press on April 27, 2023.
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Most of the Portuguese immigrants who came to Jamestown at the turn of the 20th century were from the Azores, an archipelago in the mid-Atlantic about 900 miles off the Portuguese coast. Many of these immigrants spoke of their homeland as the Western Isles rather than Portugal. 

The Azores were in some ways like Jamestown. The occupations — farming, fishing, marine trades — were similar. Pat Miller, whose surname is a corruption of the Portuguese name deMelas, spoke of his father’s love of Beavertail, comparing the vistas of the islands.

“Take the lighthouse out,” he said, “and that’s where my father used to live.”

The newcomers brought many traditions and customs of their homeland with them, including a devotion to the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Blessed Trinity. Residents of Portuguese descent celebrated the Festa do Espirito Santo each summer.

One of the important symbols at the Festa do Espirito Santo is the crown, and the importance of the crown goes back to the story of Queen Santa Isabel of Portugal (1271–1336). The Catholic church canonized her as Saint Elizabeth for her piety and peacemaking, and according to legend, she held a feast for the poorest peasants, serving bread and soup made with meat, which were foods usually available only to the elite. During the feast, she allowed one of the peasants to wear her crown. Portuguese communities around the world continued the tradition of selecting one member to rule the festivities regardless of that person’s position in society.

The Holy Ghost Society’s crown of Espirito Santo. Introduced to Jamestown in 1922, the crown was passed from Portuguese household to household for decades. The current keeper is Fran Lopes.
The Holy Ghost Society’s crown of Espirito Santo. Introduced to Jamestown in 1922, the crown was passed from Portuguese household to household for decades. The current keeper is Fran Lopes.

In the early days, the local Portuguese community did not have its own crown. In the 1910s, however, they were determined to acquire one. To raise the money, they held dinners and dances to solicit donations. All the records of collecting the money and purchasing the crown have been lost, but people interviewed by Shirley Quattromani for the “History of the Portuguese on Conanicut Island: 1895-1980” suggest that the Vieiras were delegated to visit Portugal and obtain it.
The crown they brought back is sterling silver, elaborately decorated with scrolls, fleur-de-lis, and the two symbols most closely associated with Queen Santa Isabel, the cross and the dove. The cross symbolizes her piety and charity. The dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit and of the queen’s success in mediating disputes between her husband, King Dinis, and their son, Afonso. She also mediated disputes between the rulers of Castille and Aragon. The scepter that accompanies the crown is topped with a dove, and an etching of a dove decorates the stand on which the crown rests.

In 1922, the Holy Ghost Society officially celebrated the Festa do Espirito Santo. On the day of the festival, the crown, with its accompanying scepter were carried in procession to the church where it was placed on the altar while Mass was offered. With equal ceremony, it was carried back to the place of the festival. One early festival was held in tents on Southwest Avenue at Clarke’s Pond. Joseph Dutra gave a cow. The men cooked it on the site. After 1929, when the festival became an annual event, the festivals were held at the Holy Ghost hall, which was built on Narragansett Avenue in 1926. A feast of traditional Portuguese food was followed by dancing far into the evening.

Between the annual festivals, the crown would move from house to house.

“You might get sick and pray, ‘Hey, if I get well, I’ll have the crown at my house for a month,’” Mary Piva Neronha said. “While the crown was at the house, people would come by to pray and then stay for refreshments.”

The annual celebration died with the beginning of World War II. It was revived in 1999, 2005, and 2006. However, as 82-year-old Rose Woodson mourned in 1980, “It’s older people, of my age. It’s not young kids. That’s the trouble. No younger generation.”

Joe Miller, Pat Miller’s father, was the first official caretaker of the crown, responsible for ensuring that it moved from household to household on schedule and keeping it at his home when it was not in demand. The current keeper of the crown is Fran Lopes. If the family requests, the crown is displayed at the funeral mass of any person of Portuguese descent.

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