Islands in God’s Stream

Portugal’s Azores are nine troves of Catholic treasures. By Lorraine Williams.

Azores Islands, Portugal

Pope John Paul II expressed his fondness for Portugal in his November 2000 welcome address to the new Portuguese ambassador to the Holy See: “I was able to see again (at Fatima) how the Christian religion molds Portugal’s soul and marks its life, particularly through the influence of worthy and prestigious social and cultural institutions, visible signs of the Catholic Church’s incalculable role in the course of the country’s collective life.”

How disappointed he would be today had he been here to witness the recent move by the Portuguese government to allow abortion, even though the results of the referendum did not legalize such a step.

I believe that, had the legislators come from the country’s Azores Islands, the new law would not have been enacted.

The faith of independent-minded Azoreans is deep-rooted and genuine. Six of its 16 official holidays are holy days. Indeed, it is the only country I’ve visited where almost 40% of the tourist attractions listed in guide books for each of the nine islands are Catholic churches, monasteries or convents.

Even most museums were once Catholic institutions of some type. And the listings aren’t there just to fill space. Trained tour guides take pride in their Catholic heritage and their daily faith, as reflected in the number and quality of feast-day festivals, and talk openly and proudly about them.

The fact that my guides held doctorates in history and the humanities convinced us that, in the Azores at least, intellectualism does not supplant faith — it enriches it.

It’s not hard to see why. God’s creative handiwork is everywhere in the Azores, which were described by writer Alamo Oliveira as “a world of silence and of beauty.”

Picture nine subtropical islands, formed from volcanic eruptions over millennia, rising in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The largest island, São Miguel, is 48 miles long and nine miles wide. The smallest, Corvo, is only 10½ square miles. In some locales the scenery seems to glow with mystical light, not unlike what pilgrims sometimes find in Umbria, Italy. From the ever-changing cloud clusters that ring Pico’s volcanic peak, to the fragrant hedges of blue hydrangea protecting grapevines from the steady ocean winds, this is a place that seems kissed by God.

The Holy Spirit Is Here

Maybe it’s no mystery, then, that Azoreans have a special devotion to the Holy Spirit. Dozens of imperios (small chapels dedicated to the third person of the Holy Trinity) dot the islands and, following centuries-old customs, open at specific times of the year. The island of Terceira alone has more than 50.

Most of these date from the 19th century and are built on the sites of earlier chapels. The imperio usually has a dove or a crown atop its façade, the latter brightly colored or in pure tones of white and blue. Festivities run from Pentecost to September, culminating in the “crowning” of the Holy Spirit and the sharing of food and drink with the poor.

My knowledgeable guide explained how brotherhoods of the Holy Spirit were initiated spontaneously by groups, usually neighbors, who set rules and appointed directors. At one time, this created tension with Church authorities. The kings of Spain, who ruled Portugal from 1580 to 1640, banned such brotherhoods but were unsuccessful in suppressing them.

Prior to the Portuguese Revolution of 1974, the country was ruled by dictatorship. Catholicism was the official religion, so, naturally, its influence was very strong. After that, Mass attendance declined.

But five centuries of vibrant Catholic faith could not be so easily undone.

Today the country’s young people, perhaps responding to the “speaking truth to youth” leadership of Popes John Paul and Benedict, are visibly more active than their parents were in living out their Catholic faith.

Beautifully Simple

The sea, the port and the Church are three presences that always greet the Azorean visitor. Many church artifacts reflect patron saints of the Jesuits and Franciscans, who were such an important influence here.

Some statues come from Brazil, once a Portuguese colony (and still a nation whose official language is Portuguese, as Pope Benedict was reminded on his recent visit there).

High altars with gilded carvings and artistic tile walls are common features in Azorean cathedrals, while lesser churches are beautiful in their simplicity. One fine example of the latter is the church of St. Nicholas in Sete Cicades, on the island of São Miguel. The patron of this island, St. Michael, is credited with saving it from the devils that lived there, causing sulfuric odors. He is said to have imprisoned them in holes where you can still hear them grumbling. Watch out, I was warned, or they may pull you under!

São Miguel’s Our Lady of the Star, one of several churches dedicated to Our Lady under various titles, is singularly beautiful. On display is the Arcnum, created over 20 years by Mother Margarida of the Apocalypse. It contains thousands of figures from the Bible, molded from rice flour and gum Arabic.

The richness of the larger churches, with their choir stalls of carved wood and silver altar panels, makes them notable works of art as well as reverent places of worship. One outstanding example is the cathedral on the island of Terceira, where the work of master craftsmen is on display. Here you can marvel at the Spanish Baroque influences as they mix with local tradition and oriental and Flemish touches.

In addition to the Holy Spirit festivals, other high points on the calendar include the celebration of Senhor Santo Christo (Holy Lord Christ), when, on the island of São Miguel, thousands process carrying bright candles through arches to the church. The June 24 feast of St. John the Baptist is feted with singing, dancing and even some tame (no weapons) bullfighting in the streets. Or Lady of Lourdes is big here as is, of course, that most Portuguese of Marian days, Our Lady of Fatima.

Liturgical observances are always followed by festive community events. In this way, an authentically Catholic culture continues in an island paradise. May it ever be so.

Lorraine Williams is

based in Markham, Ontario.


For general info on traveling to the Azores, contact the U.S. office of the Portuguese Trade and Tourism office by calling (646) 723-0200 or e-mailing [email protected].              Brochures and flight information are available through or by calling 1-800-Portugal.