For over a century, the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament has been a cornerstone of Madeiran heritage in New Bedford, bringing families together for several days of celebration. It has also excluded women from serving on its organizing committee.

Until now.

The groundbreaking April 2024 vote to invite women to join the committee sparked waves of emotion among those who floated potential legal action to finally make women equal in decision-making.

Victory for the Madeiran Community

Attorney Adrienne Catherine H. Beauregard-Rheaume, who has worked extensively in employment law, said she didn't hesitate to represent the women in the matter.

"I did my due diligence and it looked like it was going to be ultimately a slam dunk based on the research that I did," she said. "I have two daughters, and it's always nice for me to be working on cases that I can tell my girls about so they know that mommy's helping people and not just funding their lives. When the vote was decided on, I was shopping at Lees Market in Westport when I got the text and I teared up. I told my daughters that that case that mom has been working on, they're letting women now be a part of it. I was thrilled and so relieved that it wasn't going to go down the path of litigation because I hated the idea of this tight Madeiran community being divided."

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The attorney's sentiments were echoed by New Bedford's Jane Gonsalves, a pivotal figure in the movement. She said she decided "enough is enough" after witnessing generations of exclusion. She was especially bothered that a similar vote before feast organizers in October 2023 failed.

"I felt like I waited 26 years for nothing," Gonsalves said. "I'm 65 years old. My father passed away now, so I'll never serve with him. My niece also died last year. I'll never serve with her, either, and that was the breaking point for me."

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Gonsalves recalled a Dartmouth man and club member named Serafim Correia who wanted change as well. She said he was ostracized because he was so vocal about the matter.

"He handed me a package one day and he said, ":This is all the material I've collected about this, of the other cases,'" Gonsalves said. "I want you to do this,' he said, but I simply couldn't at the time."

Correia died in 2022.

Although upset, the women spearheading the movement for inclusion didn't intend to destroy the club, Gonsalves said, noting a lawsuit seemed like the only way to make progress.

Women Build Support for Portuguese Feast Inclusion

The road to change was not without its challenges.

Tara George, another key figure in the movement, emphasized the importance of community support and the formation of a Facebook group called "Daughters of Madeira." Together, the women rallied support and demanded a re-vote, armed with both legal backing and a deep sense of belonging.

The Daughters of Madeira connected local women of Madeiran heritage, helping to accumulate almost 30 applications for membership. The common theme was, "We're a family," "We want to belong" and "This is our heritage, too."

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Fast forward to Sunday, April 28, the day that would go down in history. It was time for feast organizers to vote again. Once news got out that the vote had passed, the women were elated.

Bittersweet tears fell as Serafim’s daughter, Angela Correia, looked up to the sky with hands raised high and said, “Thank you, Dad."

Correia had brought her 11-year-old daughter, who now can serve, and was wearing her father’s club shirt in memory of him.

“I feel like we had all this heavenly intervention,” Gonsalves said. "It's all the people that have passed that are connected to us once again telling us we did the right thing."

As the feast prepares to welcome its first female committee members, there is a sense of optimism tempered with realism. Gonsalves and George both acknowledged the challenges ahead but remained steadfast in their belief that including women in key decisions will only strengthen the annual event.

George will serve this year alongside the Peixoto family. Maria Peixoto is 88 years old and her father was a founding member of the feast 108 years ago. Her brothers, sons, nephews and grandson have all served and now she can serve as well.

An estimated 17 women are planning on serving on the committee as "festeiros," or feast committee members.

Men Advocated for Women to Join the Poruguese Feast, Too

The historic vote was welcome news to men, as well.

Steven Duarte, who served as feast president in 2017, has long been an advocate for women, claiming they’ve always been an instrumental part of the feast in many behind-the-scenes roles. He lost his daughter to bacterial meningitis when she was a high school senior.

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Duarte told the women, ‘What kind of father am I if I'm not fighting for my daughter's rights, even though she's not here to exercise them?"

Duarte is in Madeira and couldn’t be present for the vote but he was thrilled when someone called him with the good news. He immediately went to Reid’s Palace in the capital city of Funchal and spread the word.

The clifftop hotel set off fireworks in honor of the women.

The October 2023 vote was split, but feast rules dictate that the vote in favor needed to be at least 75% to pass. A significant portion of members were on the women's side, but more needed to be convinced.

Portuguese Feast Eyes a Bright Future

“I personally believe that (feast President) Tony (Abreu) saying we did this because it's time to do it is because he truly believes that,” Beauregard-Rheame said. “I believe that's how he felt and what motivated him, not because of the threat of a lawsuit."

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The invitation to women represents more than just a century-old policy change; it is a testament to the power of persistence and the enduring spirit of community. As the feast enters its 108th year, it does so with a renewed commitment to inclusivity.

"What they don’t understand, and the reason we were so heated about all of this, is that we love the feast and we love the organization," George said. "I put my life on hold for seven to 10 days every year and it’s worth it. We strive to want to promote the heritage, and when it all boils down, it's our heritage, too.”

Kudos to every Madeiran daughter who kept the flame lit for the past 108 years and now gets to serve. It's about time.

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