It is always problematic to present materials about religion. The following article attempts to bridge an information gap which has long existed between Cape Verdeans of differing religious traditions. This work is based on research and personal recollections. Some of the material has been gleaned from sources already cited in the introduction to the Cape Verdean Chronology posted on this web site. We hope the material highlights Cape Verdeans as a people of faith. Many Cape Verdeans have looked to religion as one source of strength in their long struggle for survival in the Islands and in the United States. We invite your comments and criticism.
Until the beginning of the 20th century there was only one church in Cape Verde, the Roman Catholic Church. Simply stated, to be a Cape Verdean was to be counted by civil authorities as a member of the Catholic Church. Church ceremonies added solemnity and an air of dignity to life's ritual events. The Church kept the only official birth, marriage, and death records. However, some students of Cape Verdean history argue that the influence of the Church in the day-to-day lives of the Islanders was not as important as musical traditions or the popular saints
Mastro Santa Anna, in the village of
Over the centuries there have been several small migrations of Jews fleeing political persecution in Spain and Portugal. Jews have also migrated from Morocco to Cape Verde. Many Jewish family names survive in Cape Verde to this day (e.g. Levy, Ben David, Benoliel, Benros, Cohen, Solomao etc.) But there is no evidence to suggest that Judaism or any religion other than Roman Catholicism was ever practiced in the Islands until the 20th century. Dr. Richard Lobban writes that "Cape Verdean Jews have ceased their community of religious believers, but the dimension of Jewish cultural identity unquestionably survives". In recent years international Jewish diaspora researchers have "discovered" Cape Verde and have added the islands to the long list of places to which Jews were scattered. In Mindelo and Praia there is something of a resurgence of interest among many of the decedents of these immigrants in their distant Jewish cultural roots.
Catholic missionary activity in the Islands began with the arrival of the Franciscan Fathers in 1466. In 1604 Jesuits initiated an even more limited mission program. The Holy Ghost Order came to the islands in 1941 and the Capuchins in 1946 followed soon after by the Salesian Fathers. Generally, these efforts were lacking in both scope and continuity. Religious authorities in Europe were slow to replace priests when their assignments had ended or when missionaries died. There were very few priests posted in the more remote areas of the archipelago. Cape Verdean popular folklore is rich with stories of some of these missionaries and the loving acceptance they were accorded by local populations especially in these more remote locations. A few of these missionaries are remembered not so much for their religious zeal but for the children they fathered in these same rural villages.
Before the Pilgrims set sail for America, Catholic priests had established a school at Cidade Velha (Ribeira Grande) on the island of Santiago. In 1652 at the urgings of the noted Portuguese scholar-priest, Padre Antonio Vieira, a small contingent of Capuchin missionaries were sent to work among Cape Verde's growing population. In spite of these efforts the islands would continue to be largely ignored by the Church of Rome for almost three centuries. Even after 400 years of colonization, many Cape Verdeans in the lesser populated islands and in the isolated interior villages rarely saw a priest.
The Portuguese Bishop Moniz established a secondary school in Brava in the early 1850's. Joao Vittorino, a Cape Verdean and former Portuguese Calvary officer, was recalled from years of exile in Paris to assume a teaching post at the new school. Students from throughout the archipelago and the colony of Guine came to Brava to attend the school. A few promising Cape Verdean students were often sent to study at one of the Church-sponsored institutions in Lisbon. Simplicio Joao Rodrigues de Brito of Sao Nicolau, was one such student. De Brito was sent to study at Casa Pia in Lisbon where he soon acquired a deserved reputation for his art work. De Brito's talents were encouraged by an Italian painter with whom he eventually traveled to Brazil. In later life DeBrito was called by King Pedro I to be the court portrait painter in Brazil.
The seminary in Vila de Ribeira Brava (Sao Nicolau) was established in 1876. For over fifty years, this institution occupied center stage in the scholarly life of Cape Verde. Students traveled from throughout Cape Verde and Guine to inscribe in classical programs of study. The faculty was both lay and religious, both Cape Verdean and Portuguese. Many students were able to remain in their home island and travel to Sao Nicolau by schooner to take examinations or to confer with their academic advisors. In spite of its Church affiliation, the seminary's influence was predominantly educational and cultural in character rather than religious.
The overthrow of the Portuguese monarchy was followed by a succession of short lived civil governments. Following World War I Portugal and much of Europe was engulfed in economic depression. Cape Verde and its seminary fell into a period of rapid decline. The new colonial government transformed the venerable institution into a seminary-high school in 1917. The seminary continued to have a profound influence on the cultural life of the archipelago and stimulated the creative efforts and aspirations of generations of students. In spite of its institutional demise Cape Verdeans continue to refer to the seminary in Sao Nicolau as proof positive that "something good" can be cultivated and flower in the scholarly life of the archipelago.
When Cape Verdeans began to migrate to America they brought with them their Catholic faith such as it was. By 1904 Cape Verdean immigrants had a noticeable presence in New Bedford's St. John the Baptist Church, the first church founded by Portuguese in the United States. Its communicants were generally from the Azores Islands. In spite of the fact that Cape Verdeans did not have a role in the administration of the parish, the sound of the Portuguese language and the sight of familiar saint's statues and feast days was a relative comfort to these newcomers to America. As the number of darker complected Cape Verdeans in the community grew so did the tensions between the Cape Verdeans and their "fellow Portuguese" from the Azores, Maderia and mainland Portugal. Eventually these tensions served as a catalyst to move Cape Verdeans to establish their own parish church.
A committee of lay people petitioned the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Fall River for permission to establish a Cape Verdean parish. Sometime later the Bishop secured a commitment from the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts, a Belgian missionary order, to pastor the new church. In 1905 the "new" church was consecrated.From its very begining it was the spiritual and social heart of the New Bedford Cape Verdean community.
For over 50 years, the church struggled to build its active membership. Fr. Edgebert, fondly remembered for having established the parish fund to build a new church, was affectionately called the "penny priest" by the local bank tellers when he faithfully deposited a sack full of small change representing the offering from the previous Sunday Mass. Fr. Stanislaus and Fr. Steven were steadfast in their commitment to build a strong Cape Verdean national parish. These priests understood that the intense interest in the "new church" was deeply rooted in the desire of Cape Verdean Catholics to express themselves "as a people." Finally under the leadership of Fr. Edmund Francis and later, Fr. Raphael Flammia, the push to build a modern church building took hold. Cape Verdeans formed an organizing committee and employed every conceivable strategy to raise consciousness and the necessary cash contributions to build the new church. In 1957 the new Our Lady of the Assumption Church building was solemnly dedicated by Bishop Connelly in the presence of thousands Cape Verdeans-Americans from throughout the southern New England region.
For all of its prominence in the life of the American community, Cape Verdean-American Catholics have produced only one priest. Rev. Martin Gomes, son of police detective, Tony "Guiche" Gomes, and grandson of Sr. Fortes, a New Bedford whaling man, was ordained priest and is a member of the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts. Before he entered the seminary Martin Gomes was a member of the New Bedford Vocational High School championship basketball team.
In the Islands (and arguably in the United States), Cape Verdean Catholics continued to be a "mission Church" until the era of national independence in 1975. Spiritual leadership and administration has always come from "outside" the Cape Verdean community. Only in 1975 would a Cape Verdean be consecrated Bishop of the Diocese of Cape Verde. Dom Paulino Evora, a son of Boavista and a Holy Ghost priest, was consecrated bishop on June 1, 1975 and took over his diocese on June 21 - only a few weeks before Cape Verde became an independent republic on July 5. Although the diocese dates from 1532, bishops appointed had always been Portuguese with the exception of Dom Paulino's immediate predecessor, the Most Reverend Dom Jose Filipe do Carmo Colaco, from the Portuguese India enclave of Goa.
In 1975, the 10-island diocese, which covers 4,033 kilometers, had 50 priests, including 10 Cape Verdeans. Of these 10 native priests, five were secular and five were members of religious orders, including two Holy Ghost, two Capuchin and one Saleslan priest.
In the United States a second Cape Verdean Catholic parish was established in 1979. Dr. Rozendo Brito, Maria "Bia" Lima, Dr. Belmira Nunes Lopes and Jose Gonsalves were among the community leaders who mobilized local Cape Verdean Catholics to petition the Diocese of Providence. Bishop Louis Gellineau authorized the establishment of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Pawtucket, RI. which is today the largest Cape Verdean Catholic community in Rhode Island. Fr. Jose Maria Sousa, a Portuguese priest with extensive missionary experience in colonial Angola, was invited by the Bishop to serve as the Church's first pastor. Today Cape Verdean Catholics have an identifiable presence as a "national group" in over seven dioceses in the United States.
Cape Verdean Catholics founded a number of mutual aid societies the largest of which were Santo Antonio Society and the Santa Isabel Society. These organizations collected monthly dues, organized benefit dances, provided a "death benefit" to guarantee members funeral expenses, organized religious services at wakes and funeral escorts to make certain that members were "buried well" with appropriate honors and respect.
The Santo Antonio Society arranged for a professional group photograph at most of its annual regional gatherings. These four foot long sepia-colored photographs offer a glimpse into the reality of these "Catholics of color" in a time and in a diocese dominated by Irish and Italian Catholics. One wonders how the sight of 500-1000 black men in black suits processing outside of the great church, reciting their rosary devotions in Kriolu and carrying banners of the Blessed Virgin Mary might have affected Boston's Catholic community of the 1930s and 40s.
Today new immigrant Catholic communities in the Roxbury- Dorchester sections of Boston and in Brockton and other South Shore towns are making a place for themselves within the politics of the diocese. St. Patrick's Church in Boston is the spiritual heart of this community. Italian Capuchin priests, Padre Celestino, and later Padre Pio Gottin were permitted to leave their mission assignments in the Cape Verde Islands and relocate to Boston once it became clear that over half of their parishioners had immigrated to New England. Padre Pio travels throughout the region serving the spiritual needs to the Kriolu-speaking community.
During the infamous Boston school desegregation struggle [1974- 75] Cape Verdean and Haitian parents met at St. Patrick's Church to organize ways of supporting their children. Cape Verdean elementary children were bussed from this neighborhood to South Boston and braved pelting with rocks and racial epithets as they made their way to Cape Verdean bi-lingual education classes in pursuit of their "American dream".
Each May over 3000 Cape Verdean Catholics in Boston gather for an annual Our Lady of Fatima procession through the streets of the Roxbury neighborhood. The Legion of Mary, a world-wide religious organization founded by an Irish priest, is represented in many Cape Verdean communities.
From mid-June through the end of August many Cape Verdeans observe the mastro [or bandeira] traditions. These elaborate Saint's Day devotions bring together religious and secular, African and European-inspired folk traditions. Since national independence  these celebrations have had a remarkable renaissance in the Islands and in Cape Verdean-American communities.
In the late 19th century, Protestant evangelists made the first conversions among the Cape Verdean-American community. Manuel Ricardo Martin established the very first Cape Verdean Protestant congregation in the United States. Martins was born on the Island of Maio in 1837 and came to Providence, RI in 1886. He had been converted to the Protestant faith while working aboard a ship in Australia years earlier. Soon after his arrival in America, Martin began to conduct a worship services in his rented room. He reached out to the Rhode Island Bible Society which responded with material support for what would come to known as the "Portuguese Mission". The first meeting place was on Chickenfoot Alley, the oldest Cape Verdean immigrant community in the Fox Point section of Providence. As his "congregation" grew he located a larger room on South Water Street and placed a sign in the window "Gospel Mission." Women and children began to join the mission. Eventually the mission church operated "Americanization" classes, a sewing classes, a boxing club and even a Boy Scout troop. Local Protestant women's organizations and the Union Congregational Church joined in to help with the work of the Mission. In spite of his many good works Rev. Martin was accused by some Cape Verdeans and the Portuguese priests of the local Catholic Church of leading his people "astray". They ridiculed his efforts and called his mission church the "kerosene church" because it was located was over blacksmith shop and meetings were held late into the night lit only by kerosene lamps.
Finally with the aid of the Central Congregational Church a parcel of land was secured and a building was constructed at 51 Sheldon St in 1904. In 1996 this building placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Buildings. Rev. Martin is remembered on a bronze plaque affixed to the pulpit of his church.
In the Islands several returning immigrants who had embraced these new religious ideas in America began to work among their people on the island of Brava. Although these men were not ordained ministers of any Protestant denomination, they viewed themselves as "witnesses of the Faith" and set out to preach the Gospel in Cape Verde. Earliest among these Brava Protestant churchmen were Joao Joaquina of Cova Rodela, Sevrino Lomba of Travesa and Manuel de Donz Caneca of Monte.
With the passage of time it became evident to colonial government officials and Catholic clergy alike that the work of these men would effectively call into question the principal of the "infallibility" of Roman Catholicism and its traditional relationship with the state. The ever mounting challenge of evangelistic Protestantism piqued the interest of the Portuguese hierarchy and local church authorities. Small groups of people would gather in each others' homes to worship and prevail upon each other to build a spirit of solidarity in the face of mounting pressure to cease what was characterized as "anti- Catholic" and therefore "anti-Portuguese" practices. The Portuguese enacted legislation outlawing the public practice of any religion other than Roman Catholicism (Article 130 of the Penal Code). Violation would subject the offender to imprisonment.
Joao Jose Dias was born in the village of Mato on the island of Brava. Like many of his countrymen, he came to New England aboard a whaling ship ever intending to one day return home and work among his people. In 1901, after ten years in America, he returned to Brava armed with the conviction to establish Protestantism in Cape Verde. He opened to doors to his first church in the village of Lem across the valley from Nova Sintra, the principal town in Brava. Dias was jailed and beaten for his act of defiance. He tells us through his diaries that these persecutions only made him and his followers more strident in their Protestant commitment.
Dias was intent on converting Cape Verdeans to his Protestant faith. Dias preached the Gospel in the Kriolu language. He believed that the Kriolu language talked to the minds and hearts of the Cape Verdean people in a way which the European Portuguese idiom could not. Dias' booklet of sacred scriptures, Padas de Scritura Sagrada n Criolo de Dja Braba, was one of the first publications in the Cape Verdean language. In spite of his tireless efforts to communicate his Christian heritage, he continued to be criticized and abused by most of his countrymen. License to abuse Protestants was often communicated "intralinearly" from the pulpit during Sunday Mass. In 1936, Dias returned to the United States and went into retirement in California where he lived out his last years. But he had succeeded in planting the seeds of Protestantism in Cape Verde.
That same year, an American missionary, the Reverend Everette D. Howard, was sent to Cape Verde by the Church of the Nazarene to continue the work begun by Joao Dias and his followers. Howard found a strong Protestant church in the islands. In the decades which followed large numbers of Cape Verdeans have been drawn to the Protestant faith. Today there are Nazarenes, Baptists, and Seventh Day Adventist congregation on many of the islands. In recent years even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) has "discovered Cape Verde". Today there are over forty Mormon Church missionaries in Cape Verde.
The Harwich Massachusetts Church of the Nazarene was established in direct response to the racial discrimination experienced by Cape Verdeans in Cape Cod area churches. The founder of the Church was Pastor Joseph DeGrace. Rev. DeGrace was the brother of Charles Manuel Grace who left Southeastern Massachusetts to preach the gospel and establish the House of Prayer for All People among the larger African American community.
Grace was born in Cape Verde in 1883 and immigrated to the United States as a young man. He found work as a cook on the Southern Railway and was influenced by the teachings of Pentecostal and Holiness preachers in the American South. Soon after he was
By the time of his death (1960) Grace had amassed a fortune estimated to be in excess of six million dollars. He left behind a national religious institution with churches in 110 cities and over three million members. Very few Cape Verdeans actually joined his church. Sweet Daddy Grace as he came to be called, was largely rejected by the Cape Verdean-American community because of his flamboyance and an evangelistic style which was viewed by most traditional Cape Verdean Catholics as foreign and rooted in the African-American experience. Further, many Cape Verdeans expressed a general distrust for what some described as religious cultism. Today the House of Prayer for All People enjoys broad support within the African American community for its tradition of feeding and clothing the poorest people in the community.
Cape Verdean Americans have had very limited religious dialogue with the larger African American community. A very small but dedicated group of parishioners at Our Lady of the Assumption Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts is active in the national Black Catholic movement. To hear them describe, it the first Catholic Church, indeed the first permanent place of Christian worship in Sub-Saharan Africa, was established by the Portuguese in 1460 in the Cape Verde Islands. For Joaquim "Jack" Livramento, an O.L.O.A. Black Catholic activist, the participation by Cape Verdeans in the national Black Catholic movement was "inevitable, like closing the circle; like returning to the source".
Rev. Medina pastored St. Mark's Methodist Church in Onset, Massachusetts. This village is part of the Town of Wareham and is the center of "cranberry country" and a large community of Cape Verdean Americans.
The Portuguese Calvary Baptist Church formerly of Lonsdale RI was founded by followers of Joao Jose Dias. Today this congregation is known as the Fourth Baptist Church of Providence. The Lonsdale, RI church virtually spawned the International Church of the Nazarene of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Under the leadership of Mrs. Adelina Domingas and Rev. Manuel Chavier, the Church has grown in size and influence in the community.
The first Portuguese Baptist Church of Taunton, MA now known as the Baptist Church of All Nations was founded in the 1930s as a mission church. Some of its Cape Verdean ministers have been Rev. Manuel Avila, Rev. Oliveira, and Rev. Williston M. Holbert. "Uncle Willy", as he was known, was orphaned in childhood and taken in by a Brava immigrant family in the cranberry bogs of Cape Cod. Rev. Holbert played an active part in the cultural life of the community. Holbert distinguished himself as a "bridge person" in his tireless efforts to heal the wounds surrounding the intense ideological debates which accompanied the independence movement in the Islands and within New England Cape Verdean communities.
Most demographic data would suggest that as few as 9 or 10 percent of the Cape Verdean people identify themselves as "Protestant." Fully half of Cape Verdean Protestants are members of the Church of the Nazarene. Protestantism was never imposed on the Cape Verdean people, but was introduced by fellow Cape Verdeans and was embraced only by those who chose to.
In recognition of the 500th anniversary of Catholicism in the Cape Verde Islands, His Holiness Pope John Paul II made an official visit to the Islands in January of 1990.
The United Nations has designated serveral areas in Cape Verde as World Culture Sites. Foremost among them is Cidade Velha in Santiago, site of the first Cathedral in Africa. The Gulbenkian Foundation and other philanthropic organizations are supporting Cape Verde's efforts to protect its religious cultural heritage.
Religious expression among Cape Verdeans of faith has taken many institutional forms. There are regular radio broadcasts and widely read religious publications in the Islands and in Cape Verdean American communities. Since national independence the relationship between the institutional Catholic Church and the state has been the subject of constant renegotiation. The Catholic Church has actively attempted to define and defend both its temporal and spiritual interests in Cape Verde. The Church exerted a significant degree of influence in shaping the debates of the 1991 national election in Cape Verde. It was particularly engaged on issues of family planning and land reform. These Church activities are evidence of Cape Verde's constitutional guarantees of freedom of religious expression and reflect emerging popular support for such guarantees.
* Adapted in 1997 from articles by Raymond A. Almeida originally published in the TCHUBA Newsletter in 1977. This is a "work in progress." If you have photographs to illustrate this text or comments or corrections please contact email@example.com . Thanks.