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Portuguese festa: More than sopas & parade
John Corriera, right, and members of his family begin preparing ingredients to cook the sopas. - photo by HIME ROMERO
How much do you know about the Portuguese festa, or the festas in Manteca?

The word festa alone does not tell the whole story but simply connotes something much bigger and more meaningful. That much I’ve learned through the years of enjoying the annual celebrations in Manteca.

For instance, the flyer that went out for this Sunday’s MRPS festa announced, “Manteca-Ripon Pentecost Society 90th annual Holy Ghost Celebration,” with the last three words in large and bold capital letters.

It’s been years since I heard the phrase “Holy Ghost” used in the Catholic Church. Since Vatican II it’s been referred to as the Holy Spirit, the third divine person in the Blessed Trinity.

And to countless people including myself, the Portuguese festa is simply synonymous with sopas, the tasty beef-and-cabbage soup served with the traditional Portuguese sweet bread at every celebration. In particular, I’m talking about the recipe that was perfected by the late John and Maize Correia. Their recipe was a family trade secret. Today, the Correias’ decades-long culinary dedication to the Manteca festa celebrations is being continued on by their son John Jr. and his family.

Of course, everybody is aware of the fact Manteca always has two festa celebrations every year, thanks to the presence of two strong Portuguese organizations in town. The other group is the Festa do Espirito Santo de Manteca which also stages an equally festive celebration every year. The FESM festa is coming up in a few days offering the same pomp, pageantry and spiritual intensity.

By the way, here’s a trivia item. One of the stained-glass windows at St. Anthony of Padua Church is an image of St. Isabel, a visual evidence of the strong influence and contributions of the Portuguese community not just in the parish but in the community.

Still another trivia: MRPS is NOT the Manteca-Ripon Pentecostal Society. One reader adamantly pointed that out one year the Bulletin made the mistake of printing the organization’s name as such and made sure that erratum was not going to happen again. The Pentecost in the group’s name refers to the Holy Ghost and not a religious sect, the caller firmly stated.

MRPS works with many community programs
As much information as all of the above entail, there is so much more to this annual event. Some of that, at least in a local and laity sense, were touched on by Evelyn and Ed Viss in the solicitation letter to MRPS members that they sent out last year when they served as co-presidents.

In that letter, they wrote: “We are familiar with the festa, feeding all who come for lunch and dinner, with our wonderful sopas. However, are you aware of the contributions that we make to other organizations that provide food and shelter such as St. Vincent de Paul (Society), St Mary’s (Dining Hall) and other food pantries in our community?”

The Vissletter went on to list further the many philanthropic collaborations MRPS has been doing through the years with other organizations and programs in the community. A case in point, their partnership with Give Every Child a Chance, helping raise money for the free after-school tutoring program has “helped us raise additional money for the scholarship funds that benefit our own members” in more than two decades, the Viss couple explained. These scholarships that have been awarded were “not only for high academic achievement but for outstanding service to our organization and the community.”

MRPS has assisted other nonprofit organizations as well – such as the Boys and Girls Club, Soroptimist International of Manteca, churches, athletic booster clubs, youth football teams, and youth softball, just to name a few – by providing them the use of the hall for various functions at a “special reduced rental rate,” the Viss pointed out further. “The MRPS hall has truly become the gathering place for our community – a community event center.”

As varied and as extensive are the contributions of MRPS, the festa story that has always held a fascination for me in a deeply spiritual sense is the legend of St. Isabel which is the heart of this enduring religious celebration. Legend is probably not the correct word to use since the story is supposed to be based on historical facts. Which part of the centuries-old story about the saint is historical fact or myth is a different story all together and one that invites more in-depth analysis than a column can provide.

But for now, I’ll hang on to the story that was submitted to the Bulletin in 2004 by the MRPS during their festa celebration that year. The FESM presidents at that time were Salvador and Anna Bettencourt, while MRPS had Marlene Harris at the helm.

The beautiful story of St. Isabel
Here’s the story that was in that flyer which was simply titled, “The Festa.”

This tradition all began hundreds of years ago in 1296 when Queen Isabel of Agagao, wife of King Diniz of Portugal, saw her subjects suffering from the effects of a devastating drought followed by a long famine. Thousands of people died during those years. Wells ran dry, and food began to get scarce.

Portugal’s Queen Isabel did all she could for her people during that time. There is a tradition that shows her, always with red roses in one hand and a small loaf of bread in the other. This stems from her habit of taking bread from the palace and secretly passing it to the poor and hungry. One day the king found out about it and confronted her. When she opened her apron to reveal the stolen bread, a miracle had occurred. For instead of bread, a bunch of red roses fell to the floor. Her generosity and love for her people had been honored by God.

Masses were said continuously during a nine-day novena until the day of Pentecost when the people witnessed three ships sail up the harbor and docked in Lisbon. These ships were filled with grain. Their hunger was finally at an end. It also began to rain, after several years of drought. This was considered to be a major miracle.

In thanksgiving to the Holy Spirit for this miraculous deliverance, the day of the Pentecost was declared to be a national holiday. This holiday persisted in Portugal for several centuries before being exported to the Azores Islands, and onto our community in Manteca.

When Portuguese people migrated to California and the East Coast, they brought the Holy Ghost Celebration with them, introducing it to their American neighbors. Our own local Portuguese community has continued this tradition through the Manteca-Ripon Pentecost Society since 1919. (Note: FESM – Festa do Divino Espirito Santo de Manteca – had its first president elected in 1931.) Queen Isabel was canonized by Pope Urban the Eighth in 1625. Her devotion to her people was symbolized by the promise she made to the Holy Spirit that if her people were delivered from the famine and drought, she would lay her jeweled crown on the altar as a gift to the church.

Replicas of her crown adorned with the dove, the Holy Spirit’s symbol, were made and the saintly queen began a custom of crowning and placing her cape on the poorest girl in the kingdom and poorest male beggar.

Although the original meaning of this custom, which intended to honor the less fortunate of the kingdom, has been partially forgotten due to our comfortable life styles, the custom of crowning and feeding the people of our community Sopas still takes place.

This Festa tradition has survived nearly 700 years of tumultuous worldly change and may very well survive another 700 years, for its inception is deep-rooted in religion, but more importantly, in faith.

The M.R.P.S. society holds these traditions close to their heart. It is through the support and generosity of our membership that we are able to (elicit) support from local dairymen, ranchers, businessmen, and anyone who supports these same traditions. Through the hard work of our society members and your support, the Festa tradition will be perpetuated.