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On June 28, St. Agnes church in Point Loma will hold a farewell luncheon in honor of Father Joseph Mel Collier. According to a May 20 article at sdnews.com, the departure of the aging Irish priest will mean the end of Mass in Portuguese at St. Agnes — which means that the liturgies attached to the 99th Festa do Espirito Santo will be the last celebrated in the language of those who established the celebration all those years ago.

At the end of his homily for the 9:30 a.m. Mass on June 6 honoring the Holy Trinity, Collier switched to English, “for the children, who probably don’t understand Portuguese. ‘I am with you always, until the end of the world,’” he said, quoting the Gospel. “Don’t ever forget that God is with us. At Christmas, we call Jesus ‘Emmanuel’ — ‘God is with us.’ In Portuguese, we [have a phrase that means] ‘He is among us’” — because God sent the Espirito Santo to dwell within us.

But while the Portuguese tongue may fade from Point Loma, it’s hard to imagine the Festa fading with it. There were still so many concrete reminders — reminders more lively than the fishing boat held by the statue of Mary at the front of the church, evoking the livelihood of those immigrant forebears. Reminders that required action and effort, ritual and remembrance.

“The Family of Julio and Suzette Simoes cordially invites you and your family to...please join with us in celebrating our Portuguese heritage by commemorating our deepest love and respect for the Festa...and our own Rainha Santa Isabel,” read the invitation at the website for San Diego’s Portuguese Society of the Holy Spirit. “Our daughter Juliette Lynn will, by the Grace of the Divine Holy Spirit, reign as your Queen.”

The Festa honors both the Holy Spirit and Portugal’s Queen St. Isabel, who reputedly prayed to the Spirit during a famine, “I will give my crown to the Church if you will send me a miracle so that my people will be relieved of their hunger.” (An enormous silver crown, topped with a dove and ringed with white flowers, hung from a beam of the church’s ceiling and sent white satin streamers toward the walls in all directions.) From the Mass’s prayers of intercession, read by the Queen and her court: “For the poor and needy, that God will provide for them both physically and spiritually, and that St. Isabel will intercede for them with the Holy Trinity.”

Having the young read those prayers — for the dead, for fishermen, for the departing priest — is one way of preserving a culture. Having the royal court bear the signs of Isabel’s sanctity — an oversized crown of silver and gold, a scepter topped by the dove of the Spirit, and an empty silver cake stand calling attention to hunger in the world — is another. And convincing them to gamely don dresses and suits that would not look out of place in a Baroque costume drama is yet another. The Queen’s dress was a silver-spangled marvel straight out of a royal fantasy, a fantasy nearly matched by the beaded, embroidered grandeur of every member of her court. Even the men bore their waistcoats and lace cuffs with more dignity than might be expected of the Young People of Today — no mugging, no eye-rolling. The mother of one of the Festa’s “weekly queens” gave the following quote for the article at sdnews.com: “When you’re a kid, it seems so trying. When you have kids of your own, you appreciate it more.”

The Mass mixed high solemnity and festive high spirits. The choir veered from Portuguese into Latin for the plea for God’s mercy, and a young member of the court lilted out Schubert’s “Ave Maria” after Communion. But there was a certain delight among the women assigned to manage the extravagant trains that trailed behind the processing royalty, and when a bottle of wine was brought forward at the presentation of the gifts, Collier made a fine show of slipping the bottle under his vestments. The congregation broke out in affectionate laughter.

After the Mass, Collier blessed members of the court, holding the great crown above their heads as he moved down the line gathered before the Sanctuary. The ladies bowed or curtsied before the altar, and then filed out onto Avenida de Portugal — row after row, in burgundy, cerulean, lavender, bronze, silver, and gold. At the head of the line, some 20 young women balanced baskets of bread atop their heads, leading the way for the flags of Portugal and the Holy Spirit. The Filarmonia Uniao Portuguesa de San Diego donned their white caps and fired up their brass and drums, and the parade began its slow procession toward the sea.

St. Agnes

1140 Evergreen Street, Point Loma

  • Denomination: Roman Catholic
  • Founded locally: 1933
  • Senior pastor: Joseph Mel Collier
  • Congregation size: n/a
  • Staff size: n/a
  • Sunday school enrollment: n/a
  • Annual budget: n/a
  • Weekly giving: n/a
  • Singles program: no
  • Dress: formal
  • Diversity: mostly Caucasian
  • Sunday worship: 8 a.m., 9:30 a.m. (Portuguese), 11 a.m., 5:30 p.m.
  • Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 10 minutes
  • Website: saint-agnes.org
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