New Bedford’s Feast of the Blessed Sacrament is the largest Portuguese Feast in the world and attracts 100,000 visitors to its festival grounds on Madeira Field each year. Now more than 100 years old, the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament was founded by four immigrants from the Portuguese island of Madeira in 1915. One popular story explains that they held the Feast in thanksgiving for their safe ocean journey to America. That may be true, but mostly the Feast was their effort to connect with the cultural and religious traditions of their native Madeira and to share those customs with their children in their new home.
The Feast has grown exponentially from a simple one-day religious festival hosted by Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church on Earle Street into a massive four-day event that successfully blends popular entertainment with cultural and religious traditions.
Since 1953, the Feast has been organized and presented by the feisteros (which translates to “party-people”) of the Club Madeirense S. S. Sacramento. These volunteers work throughout the year to plan the food, live music and entertainment, parade, Museum of Madeiran Heritage, and religious celebrations that come together to create the Feast. They consider it an honor to do so. Women and children now play important roles, but traditionally the male members of Club Madeirense were the stars of the show.
Four stages of live entertainment feature traditional Portuguese music and dance provided by New Bedford’s Grupo Folclorico, as well as contemporary rock, pop, and country performers. There is no entrance fee, so all the entertainment is free. Nights at the Feast can get a little rowdy, especially in front of the main stage, but the feisteros have taken steps to ensure that there are quiet grottos where families and friends can gather for conversations and the evocative performances of traditional Fado singers.
Traditional foods draw large crowds to the Feast. Barraccas (stands) on Madeira Field feature bacalhau (dried salted and spiced codfish), cacoila (marinated pork), favas (beans in spicy sauce), linguica (Portuguese sausage), pops (crusty rolls), and malassadas (deep-fried sweet bread dough coated with sugar). A culinary highlight for many Feast-goers is the opportunity to cook their own carne de espeto, large chunks of beef on six-foot long metal skewers that they turn over a blazing hot charcoal pit. Experienced chefs continually pour beer over their beef and bring zip-top bags of vegetables from home to add to their skewers.
Volunteers sell beer in vast quantities at the Feast, but Madeiran wine is the traditional drink of choice. Visitors line up ten deep to buy tiny cups of what has been called “Portuguese crack.” Madeiran wine evolved by accident in the hulls of sixteenth-century ships as a result of the constant movement and sauna-like conditions that gave the vinho a brandy-like quality. The Feast is the only event allowed to purchase Madeiran wine by the cask, which requires a permit from the Madeiran government.
100,000 visitors look forward to the Feast each year, but the event is more meaningful for the hundreds of volunteers, often multiple generations of the same families, who make it happen. At the 100th celebration of the Feast, Father Manuel P. Ferreira, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish from 1979 to 1992, said, “It’s a renewal of not only their faith, their customs and their culture, but also a renewal of their brotherhood together.”