Down Drift Road at dawn and across Hix Bridge they came Friday, 20 pilgrims on the home stretch of their Lenten Week-long trek of faith.
Their staffs tapping the pavement, the Romeiros chanted Hail Mary, the Rosary and prayers for friends in need as they followed a tradition of sacrifice and prayer begun five centuries ago in the volcano-ravaged Azores where all have their roots.
Sore feet, bad backs and bum knees slowed their procession as the 150-mile mark neared. But they would not go hungry.
“We carry no food but if you have faith, God will provide,” said Joseph Camara, at 70 the group’s most senior member.
In Westport, the Lord’s bounty appeared seemingly around every corner.
Earlier that morning, local benefactors had greeted them with roadside breakfast. Just after noon, they paused to rest against stone walls on Main Road near Charlotte White Road. They’d only sat for a moment when a car pulled up. A woman offered a kettle of steaming homemade chicken soup, steak sandwiches for all and a jug of wine.
Scarcely a mile further up Main at the entrance to Westport High School, a Portuguese bakery van awaited with fresh bread and more wine.
It has been like this throughout their journey, said the group’s spiritual leader (mestre) Tony Farias. “People have been most generous,” not only with food but places to sleep at night.
As they had done all along their many-town route — Somerset, Assonet, North Attleboro, New Bedford, Dartmouth, Westport and more — their path took them from one Catholic Church to the next where they paused for prayer. That day they’d called first on St. George’s, next on St. John the Baptist in Westport Village, and later on Our Lady of Grace on Sanford Road before their final stop in Fall River.
The doors were locked at St. John the Baptist when they arrived. Once open most of the time, the church has taken to securing its doors after thieves broke into and defiled the sanctuary weeks ago.
“We had heard about that,” Mr. Camara said. “So sad, out hearts go out to them.” That is part of why they are walking, he said. “We want to contribute by showing that there is so much of God’s good in the world — as you can see,” he said pointing to the steaming kettle of soup,” at a time when some people are turning from God … Our small sacrifice is to show that he is there for you and will see you through trouble.”
They prayed there anyway, out in the parking lot.
The procession, with its unusual garb, caused cars to slow and people to stare almost every step of the way.
There is Easter week symbolism to all that they wear, Mr. Camara explained.
The staff represents Christ’s scepter, the robe is like the one he wore, the bag on their back represents the cross Christ carried to crucifixion, and the shawl headpiece is the crown of thorns.
The walk of Romaria begin in 1522 in the Azores and remains an important tradition there that draws thousands of participants and spectators.
Eruptions were causing great pain in the Azores and people took to the streets from one village to the next to pray to the Virgin Mary, Mr. Camara said.
This new world version (although there have been smaller one-town versions, this is only the second regional one) brings people from around southeastern New England. Westport is represented by Peter Camara — his mother Normanda Camara lives in town). And last year (and next he hopes), Westport Highway Department employee Tony Medeiros was among their number. This year, a death in the family kept him from walking.
He caught up with them briefly along Main Road to offer Westport’s greetings (would have been their sooner but the two back wheels on the town truck he was driving had broken).
“These are wonderful people,” he said. “I miss walking with them.”
Although there are 20 of them, ranging in age from 14 to 70, Mr. Farias answers 23 when asked for a count — “the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are with us.”
Many others are with them in spirit. As they walk, they pray for the sick, the troubled. “We started with two names. Now we are up to four pages of names.”
They walk whatever the weather — they’d trudged through snow the day before. Nothing they do is close to as difficult as what Christ endured, one of the men said.
And the reception has been mostly warm. “We get lots of curious looks but we also get friendly waves, horns tooting … even a hug once in awhile.”
Though most were nursing aches and pains of one sort of another, all vowed to return next year.
“Our bodies may be tired but our spirits are strong,” Mr. Camara said.