In 1915, four Madeiran men organized a feast at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in New Bedford, Mass., to celebrate the safe arrival of Portuguese immigrants after a stormy journey. The festival mimicked the traditional religious feast observed in their village on Madeira Island, with a celebration of the Roman Catholic Mass, a grand procession, traditional food and folk dancing.
Today, the 103-year-old Feast of the Blessed Sacrament is the largest Portuguese festival in the world, reflecting both the size and the identity of the Portuguese-American population in New England.
Two great waves of Portuguese immigration gave Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island the densest concentration of people with ancestry from Portugal, including the Azores and Cape Verde.
They made their mark with restaurants and bakeries, with fishing fleets, with Roman Catholic churches and with the Boston Red Sox. Dustin Pedroia, Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino all have Portuguese ancestry. So does actor Tom Hanks, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry. Portugal also produced John Philip Sousa, who composed that most American march, Stars and Stripes Forever, and Emma Lazarus, who wrote the inscription on the Statue of Liberty.
The first Portuguese sailor, Miguel Corte-Real, may have come to Massachusetts as far back as the early 16th century. A 40-ton boulder now in Dighton Rock State Park is inscribed with writing that Brown professor Edmund B. Delabarre believed was written by Corte-Real, In 1912, Delabarre wrote the inscription on the Dighton Rock that said, "I, Miguel Cortereal, 1511. In this place, by the will of God, I became a chief of the Indians."
Jewish Portuguese immigrants came early to America to escape persecution. Wealthy merchant Aaron Lopez and his associates brought the sperm oil industry to Newport, R.I., and built the Touro Synagogue in the 18th century .
Until about 1870, it was whaling that drew Portuguese sailors from the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands – and poverty and military service that sent them. They signed on for low-paying, dangerous work on whale ships and then settled in whaling communities in New England, California and Hawaii.
Portuguese families started to come to the United States in larger numbers around 1870 just as the whaling industry began to decline. They worked in New England’s booming textile mills, in whaling and fishing. Women worked as seamstresses in garment shops.
In the late 19th century, many Portuguese, mainly Azorean and Madeiran, settled in Providence, Bristol and Pawtucket in Rhode Island, and New Bedford, Taunton, Fall River, Gloucester and Provincetown in Massachusetts. They also moved to Hartford and New Haven in Connecticut.
"It was easy to get into this country in those early days,” wrote Portuguese immigrant Lawrence Oliver in his autobiography. “America was a free port. To get in, all you needed was a little money in your pocket, so that the authorities could be sure you wouldn't be destitute and on relief right away."
Even during the Great Depression, Portuguese immigrants found opportunity in America. Capt. Joseph Captiva, a Provincetown fisherman, told a government interviewer in 1938,
…its a good place to live. Good money an' chances for th' young people. They say it's bad times now, but we ain' never seen bad times here like in ol' country. (Read the whole interview here.)
The newcomers began to form fraternal benefit societies and to print their own newspapers, such as A civilizacao luso-americano in Boston. They maintained strong ties to the Roman Catholic Church, and formed committees of festeiros to stage the religious festivals that survive today. The religious festivals helped Portuguese immigrants retain their sense of community and identity.
Throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, Portuguese religious festivals are held in the summer. They include the Feast of St. Anthony’s in Pawtucket, West Warwick and Portsmouth, R.I., the Festa do Divino Espirito Santo in East Taunton, Mass., The Feast of the Holy Ghost in Fall River and the Provincetown Portuguese Festival and Blessing of the Fleet. In Connecticut, a Portuguese Day Festival is held every year in Danbury and Festa De Sao Joao is held in Waterbury. Portuguese residents of Stonington, Conn., hold an annual Feast of the Holy Ghost.
Portuguese immigration peaked between 1910 and 1920, then slowed considerably. Literacy was low in Portugal, and many Portuguese immigrants couldn’t get in after the U.S. government instituted a literacy test in 1917. Then the government followed with a quota system that further reduced the numbers of Portuguese immigrants.
The 2nd Wave of Portuguese Immigrants
A series of volcanic eruptions in the Azores from 1957-58 spurred the second wave of Portuguese immigration to the United States. The Capelinhos volcano, on the coast of the Azorean island of Faial, erupted on Sept. 27, 1957 and didn’t stop until Oct. 24, 1958. No one was killed, but the volcanic activity covered the island with ash, destroyed homes and forced several thousand residents to leave. In September 1958, Congress passed the Azorean Refugee Act allowing allowed 4,800 Azoreans to immigrate.
Seven years later, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished the quota system and spurred a new wave of Portuguese immigration. Portuguese began to enter the United States at the rate of 11,000 to 12,000 per year. Between 1961 and 1990, 44.5 percent of all Portuguese immigration to the United States took place.
Portuguese immigrants make up only four-tenths of one percent (0.4 percent) of the entire U.S. population. In Rhode Island, Portuguese immigrants make up 9.7 percent of the population – the densest concentration of Portuguese in the country. Massachusetts ranks second, with 6.2 percent, Connecticut fourth, with 1.3 percent and New Hampshire with 1.2 percent.
Rhode Island, though, has only the third-largest Portuguese population. California is second. Massachusetts has the largest number of residents with ancestry from Portugal, with about 320,000, according to estimates of the 2010 Census.
The Feast of the Blessed Sacrament in early August brings tens of thousands to New Bedford for folk dancing, pop music, soccer and traditional Madeiran food – carne de espeto, bacalhau, linguica, ceviche, bifana sandwiches and milho frito. (For a description of these foods, click here.)
The beverage of choice? Madeira wine, of course. The festival ends with a parade that follows a route marked by 70 arches of bayberry leaves, illuminated by twinkling lights.
This story was updated in 2017.