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50 volunteers preparing massive meal
Natalie Xavier and her daughter Melanie Silva look over the Portuguese sweetbread that will be sold to help raise money to offset the cost of the meal prepared and served for free on Sunday. - photo by JASON CAMPBELL

It started on Wednesday evening when nearly a dozen women got together to bake Portuguese sweetbread throughout the night.

And it continued on Friday as nearly two dozen volunteers began preparing the roughly 9,000 pounds of meat that will be cooked alongside cabbage, carrots, onions and spices to make the traditional Portuguese offering of sopas.

The weekend of the 79th annual Festa do Espirito Santo de Manteca Holy Ghost Festa has finally arrived.

“It takes about 50 people to get the sopas going, and there will be volunteers here around the clock from now until Monday,” said current FESM President Danny Silva. “It takes a lot of work to feed 1,000 people, but it’s something that the volunteers enjoy doing.”

While 160 pounds of baked goods sat on tables in the back of the room, huge cuts of beef were funneled into the hall and onto waiting tables Friday where volunteers like Maria and Florentino Santos used filet knives to cut the fat away and organize the meat into strips that will eventually be cooked.

As the hall’s president, Silva and his wife Natalie have both played a big role in overseeing the operations and preparations that go into the two-day event. The weekend culminates on Sunday with the feast, served free to the public in accordance with a centuries-old tradition commemorating the acts of Queen Isabel who feed her people during famine.

The faith aspect of the event is what drives Silva, and with three kids, carrying on the tradition and making sure that it’s still around when they’re old enough to assume leadership roles also plays a part.

“It’s not an easy job, but it’s faith-based and I enjoy that aspect of it. It’s a good cause and it’s rooted in tradition, and I want to carry on that tradition for my three children,” Silva said. “It’s an event that is open to the community and it draws a lot of people and we’re glad to see this become a community event.”

Representatives from other Portuguese societies from throughout Northern California will be on hand Sunday to represent their respective organizations and break bread during the first serving of sopas at noon.

The events begin on Saturday with a Rosary at 7 p.m., followed by a concert by the Azores Band of Escalon – of which Silva is a member, playing the saxophone. A dance begins at 8 p.m., and the Procession of the Queens will take place at 9:30 p.m. Events on Sunday begin at 9:30 a.m. with a parade procession to St. Anthony of Padua Church on North Street. Mass begins at 10:30 a.m., and after the walk back at noon, sopas will be served. An auction will begin at 2 p.m. to raise money for the hall, and a second serving of sopas will be served again at 7 p.m., followed by a dance that begins at 8 p.m.

The FESM Hall is located at 252 N. Main Street.