The first week of July, nineteen Vincent/Vicente relatives gathered on Sao Miguel, the ancestral home of our grandparents, one of the nine Azorean islands. This pilgrimage to the island, which had been the home of generations of Vicente, opened the lens of my heart.
The experience of the pilgrimage started with the shear physical beauty of the island. Sitting 2,500 miles east of Boston and 1,500 miles west of Portugal, the nine Azorean islands are volcanic mountains standing on tiptoes in the midst of the Atlantic. Our island is the largest of the nine, about 35 miles long and merely 12 miles wide. It is an island that is still being created, much like Yellowstone, as the earth’s crust moves and heaves and shifts. This created geothermal features that were amazing.
We soaked in the healing baths of Furnas; in pools of hot springs that met the sea; we climbed gingerly over the skeletons of ancient lava flows hardened into sharp and unforgiving surfaces. We saw fumaroles, cracks in the earth crust that release the steamy vapors of geothermal activity beneath the surface, and which are famous for cooking the traditional meal, cozido; a medley of chicken, pork, beef, sausage, cabbage, collards, carrots, potatoes.
The ingredients are put into a cast-iron pot, covered, lowered into the ground above the fumaroles and baked for 6 hours. We got to enjoy one such meal, along with bottles of the local wines, a marvelous lunch of memorable proportions.
We stood in awe of the magnificent green and blue waters that filled calderas, basin-lakes formed when ancient volcanoes collapsed inwardly after the violent explosions of eruptions. The land itself is lushly green and today, the small highways and hedgerows are splashed blue, purple, pink and plum with hydrangeas of remarkable beauty.
This island was the home to 14 generations of my ancestors who lived here, worked here, and died here. We learned some of the stories and saw the house where my grandfather was born. We walked by the tobacco factory where my grandmother worked, from age 11, and where she secretly learned how to read and write due to the kindness of the owner who spotted her talents and intellect. We met a cousin for the first time, who welcomed us into her home and served us her homemade specialty, a smoothly concocted tangerine liqueur.
We celebrated Mass with the tiny community in the little church, Igreja de Santa Clara, where my people prayed, married, baptized their babies, and wept for their dead. The local parish governing community, the junta de Santa Clara, held a picnic lunch in our honor at the local park and later, a reception in the community center presenting us with a collection of gifts and with their warm and loving embraces for us, the American children of this island.
In the Celtic tradition, there are some places – often wild and beautiful – called a “thin place”. These are places where the veil that separates our earthly plane from the divine mystery is lifted, revealing the glory of God’s creation. On the island of Sao Miguel, we encountered so many of such places. The most powerful was the northeast corner of the island, called Nordeste, where the highest point of the island, Pico da Vara, towers at 3,624 feet. Here, the green cliffs drop precipitously down to the sea; the waves could be heard faintly echoing below us against the rocky shoreline.
I looked out at the sea, knowing that my grandparents had intentionally left this island of unspeakable beauty, and persistent poverty. They set out for a new life, crossing this huge sea to a completely strange land. My parents were born into that dream and they also struggled to provide for each of us.
And here I stood, completing the circle back to these shores, over 100 years after they left, returning to a place I recognized with my heart, though my eyes had not seen it until now.