More than 100 years after its founding, the Feast still begins and ends at Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church. Though in recent years the religious aspects of the Feast have taken a backseat to its many secular offerings, the Feast’s four Madeiran founders held the first event at the church in 1915.
The Diocese of Fall River founded Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church in 1909 to serve New Bedford’s growing Portuguese community in the North End of the city. The ethnic church offers Portuguese and English masses, and parishioners relish its Portuguese traditions. Immaculate Conception Church was the third of the city’s three Portuguese churches. It followed Saint John the Baptist Church, the oldest Portuguese Church in North America, established in 1871 in the center of the city, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, established in 1902 on Bonney Street in the South End.
The first Festas were simple gatherings on the church grounds that took place on a Sunday afternoon. Families gathered around temporary barraccas, or stands, to eat and socialize. Religious and cultural traditions from the Portuguese island of Madeira were at the heart of their celebrations.
In recent years the Feast has grown into a four-day event. On its first day, a Thursday, feast organizers, or Festeiros, venerate, or worship, the Blessed Sacrament displayed in an elaborate monstrance (pedestaled case) on the altar. The Blessed Sacrament is the consecrated communion host that Catholics believe to be the real body of Jesus Christ. Afterwards, the congregation moves to the Feast grounds on nearby Madeira Field for the Benediction, or blessing, that officially opens the event.
On Sunday, the final day of the Feast, the Festeiros, their wives, and the other Club Madeirense S. S. Sacramento members gather at the Feast Grounds to march in formation to the church for a special High Mass at 10:00 AM. There the celebrant blesses them for their efforts on behalf of the Feast and for their respect for the Feast’s religious traditions.
Father Daniel Reis regrets the Feast’s change in focus over the years from religious to secular, according to the Anchor, a newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River. What was once a religious procession is now just a parade without the statues of saints and other reminders of the feast’s origins. Father Reis still marches in the parade and enjoys the traditional foods the Feast has to offer, but he hopes for more. 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the Feast. There was talk of bringing back the traditional religious procession, but it did not happen.
Immaculate Conception Church’s congregation is shrinking, like many Catholic churches in America. The recent closures of other churches in New Bedford is alarming, and parishioners of Immaculate Conception Church hope and pray the same does not happen to them. They are proud that they celebrate other Portuguese religious feasts in traditional ways including the Feast of Senhor da Pedra (Jesus of the Rock) and the Holy Ghost Feast, and hope to continue for many years to come.