“We’ve Got the Holy Spirit, So the Bread Will Rise”
Sweet bread is at the heart of this annual Spring festival in Gloucester’s Portuguese community.
They work in shifts. Coffee flows into their cups from the pot’s spout and scones are handed around the table to those on the “waiting” shift. The others work in the hallway-shaped kitchen — a long, narrow 40 x 8-foot space. Enough room to be able to shimmy around each other grazing hips just here and there.
Of the 280 pounds of flour and 35 dozen eggs, just one batch of Portuguese sweet bread is rising, while the second one mixes. Someone hollers a muffled “all set!” from behind the kitchen’s door and the entire team — the men in their street clothes and the women dressed down with their aprons tied tightly and ready for dirtying — hurry to the kitchen to assume their familiar role in the assembly line.
The baking of Portuguese sweet bread is a tradition that’s part of the Festival of the Crowning, a religious ceremony that takes place on the seventh week after Easter that’s aimed to remind parishioners that everyone is a king or queen in the eyes of God. The Our Lady of Good Voyage Festival of the Crowning began in 1902. After surviving a ship collision at sea, Captain Joseph P. Mesquita brought the religious ceremony, which originated in Portugal and his native Azores, to Gloucester.
The crown, a work of silver adorned with five arched bands, a solid-silver ball to represent the world, and a white dove to symbolize the holy spirit, is the true trademark of the ceremony. But, I’d argue that it wouldn’t be the same if not for the bread.
In the shadows of the youth center connected to Our Lady of Good Voyage church sit the bakers of a 116-year-old tradition. They don’t bother with the lights. Instead, they bake to the settling-in sunrise to keep the already-climbing temperature at bay.
Around the long fold-out table sits Bob Cloutman, Bart Piscitello, Victor Machado, Sheila Neves, Julia Garcia, and Maureen Cusumano. Bread bakers and bickerers all. Their mix of Gloucester and Portuguese accents — so unique you could bottle it up and slap on a trademark — blends together to form the same medley you find in certain iconic pockets of the city.
The conditions for baking Portuguese sweet bread aren’t sexy. Five in the morning wakeup calls, occasionally even worse than that. Late nights. Hot temperatures. Cramped spaces. No pay. But, there’s one thing that drives them to do it. A magnetic pull that hoists each of them up and out of their warm beds in the morning.
It’s a force so strong it gets them behind the wheel to drive to the blue and white church that sits at the bottom of the hill — and that’s faith.
“I have a lot of faith in it to carry on the tradition. It’s faith that drives us,” says Garcia who remembers helping out with the bread baking starting at a young five years old.
Cloutman brings with him a sarcasm easily detected as his usual flair. “I just love it,” he chuckles. “I just can’t wait to get outta bed and come here so early.” He’s standing in a sling the doctor gave him after his most recent shoulder replacement surgery.
The conversation’s sentiment shifts. Their voices come together again, to reiterate the same message. “We do it for the church.”
“And… sometimes…” Neves pauses, “we like the people we work with.”
“The thing is that if nobody learns how to make the sweet bread and nobody does it, then the tradition will die,” says Cusumano, the youngest member of The Guild, the church’s women’s club.
That goes for the baking of the bread and the entire ceremony, which spans a whole week packed, “to the gills” as some would say, with an array of religious events and traditions.
From Monday to Sunday the church hosts ticketed feasts that serve authentic Portuguese Molho de Carne, nights where members of the community sit in metal fold out chairs and bring their best rosary beads for a suite of prayers, and fairs where grandmothers bring hand-crocheted masterpieces to sell for short money for the good of the church.
Cusumano, who attended the night prior’s event, lets out a sigh, “I’m exhausted — and I was only sellin’ tickets!”
I hear sneakers squeaking on the freshly polished floors and turn to see Herbie Morias and his wife Maria walking in to join us. “Here he comes, here comes ‘Mr. Sweet Bread,’” says Garcia.
They call him that for good reason. A part of the operation since 1972 and someone who’s been working in the church since 1968, he knows a thing or two about baking the bread. He started helping make it years ago when he baked with Neves’ uncle Jackie Gamradt — a man who would point to his head when folks would ask about the recipe and say to them, “it’s all up here.” When Jackie passed away, Morias was the only person who knew how to make the bread. He led the job of the baking and then passed the responsibility to Cloutman.
Neves, whose uncle’s recipe has been in her family for decades, says that they’re all the same — they’re just tweaked differently depending on who’s baking it. “I think our bread is a little sweeter,” she says.
“Our bread is baked on holy grounds,” jokes Cusumano.
Now, the recipe is transcribed somewhere under lock and key, Cloutman tells me. Cusumano jokes, “The question is, who’s gonna follow this crew?”
Machado, a native of a small Azorean island named Pico, says, in an accent as heavy as the humid air, “In the Azores, and every city in Portugal, people give sweet bread away to the people at each fiesta,’” he calls them. “On Saturdays and Sundays, they give them sweet bread this time of the year.”
People are particular about how they like their sweet bread. My preference? Toasted, with butter, and a glass of milk. I ask them what their go-to way to indulge is. “With butter,” Cusumano stresses, “Sometimes I toast it and sometimes I don’t even have the butter.” My favorite response is from Machado who says, his consumption amount is dependent on time of day.
“I make a French toast in the morning, it’s a beautiful French toast. If you want to try, go into Sugar Magnolias and ask for it. They buy their loaves from the DES club.”
He goes on to explain, standing now and waving around his hands to accompany any inflection, “In the afternoon, because it’s the middle of the day, you can eat more bread. You can waste it off in the afternoon, walk it off and it’ll disappear.” He keeps on, “In the nighttime, you can only have a little because you go to bed. You only get one little slice.”
Cloutman, with one arm crippled, screams from the kitchen, “Ya gotta take it out of the pot.” Garcia shuffles to the kitchen’s door and Sheila hurries behind her.
The batch being mixed is now ready for panning. The men lay out the drying racks — preparation for the cooling process, which comes after the baking. I ask where they got the racks. Their explanation didn’t surprise me. Herbie crafted them by hand.
“So, what’s the hardest part? About baking this bread — doing this?” I ask them before leaving.
Neves says, “The hardest thing is getting the bread to rise. Panning it and waiting for it to rise. I didn’t get home till quarter of ten last night.”
“Yes, sometimes it seems like when it’s rainy and damp it doesn’t rise,” Garcia adds.
“We’ve got the holy spirit in the house, so the bread will rise,” Cusumano insists.
Cloutman, who still has sticky dough trapped in between his finger creases, says, “The hot kitchen and the long hours, the bread is nothing.”
“Yah, the bread is not the problem,” agrees Machado.
Even still, it’s this “for the church” mantra that drives them. “There are a lot of people who want to support the church,” Cloutman says.
But Cusumano says it’s more than that, “it’s community.”
Shawn Henry is a Gloucester-based editorial photographer.
▶︎ Keep an eye out in the Gloucester Daily Times for upcoming event listings — from fried dough breakfasts to penny sales and religious events. Interested in learning more or want to find out how to get involved? Visit the Catholic Community of Gloucester and Rockport.