This metal archway welcomes 100,000 attendees each year to New Bedford’s Feast of the Blessed Sacrament. It is a year-round reminder of the importance of this annual event in New Bedford’s North End. Positioned on the edge of Madeira Field, the archway also reminds us that the Feast is now a 100+ year-old tradition.
Immigrants from the Portuguese islands of the Azores, Cape Verde, and Madeira first arrived in New Bedford as crew aboard whaling vessels, but their presence in the town was often transitory. By 1905, more than 7,000 immigrants from these islands settled in the city, along with a smaller number from mainland Portugal. Attracted by jobs in the textile industry, Portuguese immigrants made up approximately 25% of the labor force by 1910. Many of the Portuguese immigrants who settled in this part of the city were from Madeira and worked in the mills along Riverside Avenue.
As special as the metal archway may be, there are other archways at the Feast that tie more deeply to its Madeiran roots. Volunteers erect nearly four-dozen bayberry archways each year spanning the city’s streets along the Feast’s parade route from Madeira Avenue to Acushnet Avenue, creating a festive and traditional backdrop for the Portuguese foods and varied entertainments inside the Feast grounds.
The gathering of the bayberry for these archways is an all-day affair and a beloved tradition for the Feast’s volunteer organizers, or festeiros. In 2013, reporters Diana Mendes and David Macomber followed the men who gathered the greens and documented the tradition.
On the Sunday before the Feast the male members of Club Madeirense gather at the Feast grounds for a hearty pre-dawn breakfast before hopping on school buses for the thirty-minute ride to Westport’s Gooseberry Island, singing along the way. Three busloads arrive on the island at 6:30 a.m., and spend much of the day collecting bayberry to decorate the arches. Some use tools their fathers and grandfathers used before them. The bayberry is the American equivalent of the bay leaves and laurel their ancestors collected in Madeira for their Feast of the Blessed Sacrament.
The men call the gathering of the greens festista. Their families join them as the day wears on, and they end the day with a ceremonial dip in the ocean and more music. The volunteers pack the greens in large containers and bring them back to the city. The night before the Feast they weave the greenery into metal arches near Madeira Field and decorate Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church with additional greenery.