Procession of Senhor Santo Cristo at St. Mary’s Church in Toronto, May 26, 2019
I had planned on going to the Azores this year to once again attend the Festas do Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres, but circumstances changed and, here I am, in Toronto, where I was still able to attend the festival in the diaspora, at St. Mary’s, one of the oldest Roman Catholic churches in the city.
The tradition of the Christ of the Miracles procession started in 1700 in the city of Ponta Delgada in São Miguel, Azores, and was brought to Canada in 1966 by Azorean emigrants, whose devotion to the Ecce Homo, the suffering Christ crowned with thorns, has never wavered with the passage of time away from the homeland.
My father, who had come to Canada in 1965, saw that first procession at St. Mary’s in 1966, along with my paternal grandparents, my aunt and uncle, and my two little cousins, who had all been the first of our family to come to Canada. My grandmother once told the story of how everyone cried with emotion that day, remembering their family members still in the Azores, and how there was no filarmónica band to play the Hino do Senhor Santo Cristo. As a substitute, a gramophone record of the hymn was played from the back of a truck accompanying the procession through the streets of Toronto.
My father was a great devotee of Senhor Santo Cristo and belonged to the Irmandade do Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres. As a member of the brotherhood, every year, my father would take his two-week vacation to volunteer with the setting up of the electrical decorations outside the church as well as taking his turn as one of the men who had the honour of carrying the statue in procession. As my father got older and no longer able to carry the heavy andor, he still processed along with his fellow brothers of the Irmandade. I remember watching him the last time he was able to join in the procession. He probably had already been diagnosed with cancer that year, 2003, but I had blocked this certainty from my mind until now as I write about it. I remember taking his photograph as he went by, fingering his rosary beads, absorbed in his prayer and with perhaps the knowledge that this might be his last time processing with his beloved Santo Cristo. He stopped to look at my camera and for a second he was out of step with the others walking with him. When my father died, in 2005, the president of the Irmandade, Senhor Raposo, came to the funeral home and offered my mother the red sash members wore in procession. My father was buried with it, the last symbolic honour given to him in recognition for his many years of faithful service to the Irmandade. And before his coffin was brought inside St. Helen’s church, several of the brothers, wearing their sashes, stood in silence on either side of his coffin to offer their solidarity and condolences. Many of these men, who were my father’s friends, are also now gone, too.
Over the years, the number of those who come to participate in the festa has been decreasing, from the highest attendance back in 1974 (90,000) to the few thousands I saw in this year’s procession. Partly because of an aging population, but especially because so many Portuguese started to leave the city core, known as Little Portugal, for places like Mississauga, Vaughn, Woodbridge, and Brampton (where they have their own festa do Senhor Santo Cristo, as does the community in Kitchener). The festival of Senhor Santo Cristo is also celebrated in Montreal, and in the US, at Fall River, Massachusetts.
Everywhere that Azoreans went, they brought with them their most treasured spiritual possession, one that continues to tie them to their deep Azorean roots. But as a significant symbol, the replica statues in the diaspora are only a reminder of the original statue back in the Santuário do Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres. “É uma emoção diferente,” says my mother, whose mobility keeps her at home, and who now watches the procession in the Azores on RTP television. One can also watch it on-line and, if my mother had Internet, I know she would do so. It’s a very different world from 1966 when the Azorean immigrants in Toronto had to rely on a gramophone record to remind them of the sounds of home.
Inside St. Mary’s before the procession, May 26, 2019
The last time I saw the procession of Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres in Toronto with my parents was in 2003:
The very first time I saw the procession in Toronto was in 1969. These photographs of me were taken in the early 1970’s when I was an altar boy at St. Mary’s Church.I am the one in the middle, carrying the processional cross
That’s me in the foreground
my drawing of S.S. Cristo
The future of Senhor Santo Cristo in the diaspora is in his drum beat