San José State University
Betty Faultner
(An American of
Azorean Heritage:
Sarmento of Pico)
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Festival of the Holy Spirit in
Azorean Portuguese Communities

Each year in Portuguese communities, especially those with an Azorean background, there are held Festas do Espírito Santo (Festivals of the Holy Spirit). They involve a dressed parade with some paraders carrying baskets of bread on their heads, the crownings of queens of the festivals and a community meal in each community. Prominently displayed during each festival is a crown topped with an image of a dove. This festival is usually held on Pentecost Sunday (a.k.a. Whitsuntide or Whitsunday), the seventh Sunday after Easter, but could be held on any Sunday between Easter and Pentocost Sunday.

The participants and onlookers think of the festival as a quaint manifestation of Portuguese community spirit. It is usually organized and presented by a local non-church organization but utilizes church facilities. Little do the onlookers know that this festival had its origins in a radical theological movement that was wide-spread in Europe but survived largely only in Portugal because the King and Queen in Portugal moderated its radical elements and supported its observation.

The Distant Origins of the Festival

There was a wide-spread belief throughout Europe as the year 1000 A.D. and a change in the millennium approached that something significant would happen that year. Some, called Millenarians believed a new era would begin, perhaps even the Second Coming of Christ. When nothing like a new era happened in 1000 the Millenarians shifted their projected time for a change in the era to sometime in the future.

In Italy there was a monk named Joachim who was born in 1132. He became the abbot of a monastery in Fiore, Italy. He considered what might be the implications of the concept of God as a trinity; i.e., the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit They were of equal importance. Joachim then reflected that the Old Testament of the Bible concerned the Father and the New Testament concerned the Son. He then reasoned that there must be three eras for humanity.

According to Joachim, based upon his reading of Revelations and the Book of St. John, the Era of the Holy Spirit would bring peace, justice, equality, tolerance and brotherly love. People would lead lives of simplicity, innocence, happiness and freedom from sin. It would be the Empire of the Holy Spirit.

Abbot Joachim died in 1202.

Joachim's idea of a utopia on Earth captured the minds of many, notably many monks in the Franciscan Order. But also this utopian philosophy intrigued members of royalty. The intellectuals of the time, including Dante, were taken by the beauty of Joachim's image of paradise on Earth. Intellectuals throughout history have been captivated by plans or prescriptions for utopias.

Some of the followers took the ideology of the Era of God the Holy Spirit a step further. They reasoned that the Catholic Church was an institution of the Era of the Son and should therefore disappear in the Age of the Holy Spirit.

This was too much for the Catholic hierarchy and the Church commenced a program to suppress the ideology of Joachim and his followers. In 1256 Pope Alexander IV condemned as heresy all writings promoting the ideology of the Joachim. Subsequently the movement concerning the Era of the Holy Spirit was wiped almost everywhere in Europe. Groups of Franciscan monks resisted the condemnation of the concept of an Era of the Holy Spirit as did the Order of the Knights Templar.

The Survival of the Holy
Spirit Movement in Portugal

In Portugal the Queen Isabel, originally a Princess of Aragon, was an enthusiast for Joachim's vision and her husband King Dom Dinis also became one. They however saw no need for the disappearance of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. Isabel was accepted by the populace as a saint in her own lifetime and made officially a saint by the Catholic Church after her death.

So the King and Queen of Portugal promoted the celebration of the Festival of the Holy Spirit throughout their kingdom. Sometime between 1296 and 1325 they established a church in the city of Alenquer dedicated to the Holy Spirit. It was staffed by Franciscan monks. Later a hospital was built in Alenquer along with the church.

The Royal Couple also created a lay brotherhood to organize the Festivals of the Holy Spirit. The Festivals included a ceremony for crowning a commoner as the representative of the Emperor of the Holy Spirit. The crown used in the coronation initially had a cross on top, but later that cross was replaced or superseded by a dove. The cross was a symbol of the Era of God the Son whereas the dove was the symbol of the Era of God the Holy Spirit. So the Festival of the Holy Spirit was thoroughly a celebration of Joachim's concept of the Era of the Holy Spirit. It survived in Portugal due to the support of the King and Queen of Portugal with their accomodation of the the Catholic Church.

Several elements of the festival stem directly from the life of Queen Isabel, such as the distribution of bread. There was a famine in Portugal. Queen Isabel began to take food from her table to the poor. Her husband, King Dinis, admonished her to stop doing so. One time he saw her with something under her cloak and suspected it was bread and thus evidence of her disobeying him. Isabel said a quich prayer and when she opened her cloak it was roses which tumbled out instead of bread. The use of a crown in the festival stems from Queen Isabel praying for the suffering of the people to be alleviated and promising that she would give her crown to the ceremony if the people's suffering was reduced.

The Establishment of the
Devotion to the Holy Spirit
in the Azore Islands

The Azores were discovered by Portuguese ship navigators spotting in the distance hawks soaring over the Islands. The name Azores means goshawk in Portuguese. The Azores consist of nine major island in three groups. Officially they were discovered in 1427, but they apparently were spotted by passing ships before that because they appear on some maps created before 1427. First sheep were brought to some of the islands and freed in hopes that they would multiply and provide food for passing ships and later for settlers. In the 1430's there were settlements made on two of the islands. However settlement of some of the islands did not begin until two decades later in 1439.

The settlement of the islands was under the administration of the Knights of the Order of Christ, the organization that was the successor to the Knights Templar. Prince Henry of Portugal was the Grand Master of the Order of Christ. Franciscan friars were involved in the early settlements. Those friars promoted the creation of brotherhoods to organize the Festivals of the Holy Spirit. The brotherhoods were also devoted to the building of hospitals.

There were many Flemish people involved in the early settlements partly because too few Portuguese were interested in migrating to distant volcanic islands. The Flemish were people of Dutch language and culture who lived in Belgium. The Flems had revolted against their ruler, Duke Philip of Burgundy. Duke Philip's wife was the sister of the Prince Henry of Portugal. She asked Prince Henry to allow the rebellious Flems to settle in the Azores. Prince Henry agreed and supplied transportation. Those transported Flemish families adopted Portuguese family names.

There were also Portuguese Sephardic Jewish families who had been forced to convert to Christianity who migrated to the Azores to escape the surveillance of the Inquisition.

The Festival of the Holy Spirit survived in the Azores and became a distinctive element of Azorean culture. Therefore the Festival was brought to America and preserved as a treasure of their culture. Thus a remnant of a radical utopian ideology created in the 14th century was preserved as a cultural heritage without the participants being conscious of its radical origin. However consider this popular Azorean song

Divino Espírito Santo,
Senhor de ceptro e coroa;
Vós na terra sois pembinha,
No ce´ divina pessoa.

Oh Most Divine Holy Spirit
Lord of scepter and crown;
On Earth you're a little dove,
In Heaven, a divine person.


Tony P. Goulart (Project Coordinator), The Holy Ghost Festas: A Historic Perspective of the Portuguese in California, Portuguese Chamber of Commerce of California, San Jose, California, 2002.

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