The Cult of the Divino Espírito Santo, Cult of The Holy Spirit

The cult of the Holy Spirit (Portuguese: Culto do Divino Espírito Santo) is a religious sub-culture, inspired by Christian millenarian mystics, associated with Azorean Catholicidentity, consisting of iconography, architecture, and religious practices that have continued in many communities of the archipelago as well as the broader Portuguese diaspora. Beyond the Azores, the Cult of the Holy Spirit is alive in parts of Brazil (where it was established three centuries ago) and pockets of Portuguese settlers in North America. The cult of the Holy Spirit involves traditional rituals and religious celebrations of these faith communities.

In its original sense, “cult” referred to an accepted religious practice, in sharp contrast to the term’s modern, negative connotation. Devotion to the Holy Spirit is part of classical Catholic dogma and is the inspiration of several Catholic religious institutes, including the Spiritans, but what is considered here has peculiar characteristics of its own.

Two hundred years later, there was a rebirth of the popularity of the doctrines in the Azores; their religious manifestations, rituals and symbols began to permeate the islands and, consequently, persist until today. These acts of faith were heavily influenced by Franciscan spiritualists, who were members of the first religious order that colonized the Azores, and brought with them traditions that were being extinguished on the mainland by Catholic Church orthodoxy. Here, in isolated communities under environmental pressures and the uncertainties of life, the millenarian rites of the Holy Spirit were accepted and fostered. The Azores, and those communities that had their origins in the archipelago, became the last outposts of Joachimite doctrines.

The origins of the modern cult and its rituals are not definitively understood. The dominant theory postulates that the celebrations were introduced into Portugal by Queen Elizabeth of Portugal. The cult’s principal centre of devotion was in Tomar, which was also the location of the priory of the Order of Christ, charged with the spirituality of newly discovered lands (including the Azores). Another centre was Alenquer, where, in the first years of the 14th century, Queen Elizabeth introduced the first celebration of the Império do Divino Espírito Santo (English: Empire of the Divine Holy Spirit), probably influenced by Franciscan spiritualists, who there founded the first Franciscan Convent in Portugal. From there the cult first spread in Portugal (Aldeia Galega, Alenquer, Sintra, Tomar, Lisbon), and later accompanied the Portuguese during their Atlantic discoveries.

The new colonies were, from the beginning, subordinate to the priory in Tomar, later the archbishop of Funchal, and finally, the new bishopric of Angra do Heroísmo, which were overseen by the Order of Christ, who nominated new clerics, oriented the faithful and supervised the religious development. In this context, references to the proliferation of the cult of the Holy Spirit appeared early, and in a general way, throughout the archipelago. Gaspar Frutuoso, writing 150 years after the beginning of the island’s settlement, indicated that this devotion existed in all the islands; its expansion was tolerated, if not promoted, by the Order of Christ. References in the Constituições Sinodais da Diocese de Angra (approved in 1559) by the Bishop of Angra, Friar Jorge de Santiago show that some attention was given to the cults by the episcopal authorities.

The existence of the Irmandades do Divino Espírito Santo (English: Brotherhoods of the Divine Holy Spirit) were first noted in the 16th century. The first hospital constructed in the Azores (1498), under the Santa Casa da Misericórdia of Angra, received its current name, the Hospital do Santo Espírito. The distribution of food (meats, bread, milk) was already an important part of the charity common in the middle of the 16th century.

From then on, and in particular after the beginning of the 18th century, the cult of the Holy Spirit assumed a position of importance in Azorean culture, becoming a unifier of the population in the various islands. With Azorean emigration, the cult was transplanted to Brazil, where by the end of the 18th century there existed feast days in Rio de Janeiro, in Bahia, and other zones where Azorean immigrants settled, such as Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul and Pernambuco. In the 19th century, the traditions spread to Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Connecticut and California in the United States, as well as to Ontario, Quebec, andBritish Columbia in Canada.

The Feast of the Empire of the Divine Holy Spirit was also celebrated on board of the naus on their way to Brazil and toIndia, during the 16th century. In a letter sent to Italy from Goa (India), the Jesuit missionary Fulvio Gregori reports: “The Portuguese used to elect an Emperor by the Feast of Pentecost and it was so also in this ship St. Francisco. Indeed, they chose a boy as Emperor on the eve of Pentecost, in the midst of great pomp. They dressed him very richly and then put on his head the imperial crown. They also chose for him lords and officers at orders, so that the captain was appointed overseer over his house, another gentleman was appointed cupbearer, each with his office at the disposal of the Emperor. Even the officers of the ship joined in, the master, the pilot, etc. Then, on the day of Pentecost (Easter or Holy Spirit), all dressed to perfection, at an altar on the bow of the ship, where there was more space, with beautiful cloths and silverware, they led the Emperor to Mass, with music, drums and courtiers. There he was seated on a chair with velvet cushions, with a crown on his head and a sceptre in his hand, surrounded by his court, to the accompaniment of artillery salvos. The courtiers of the Emperor feasted and then, finally, served everyone here on board, around three hundred people.”

Spiritual tenets

Generally, there are several prescribed tenets that organize this religious movement, that were derived from Joachimite dogma:

  • Hope (Portuguese: esperança) — the faithful seek the fulfillment of religious dogma that assumes a period of human spiritual development and brotherhood, and in which the Holy Spirit is the fountain of knowledge and order;
  • Faith in the Divine (Portuguese: Fé no Divino) — that the Holy Spirit is present in all places, it knows all and sees all, and the faithful recognize that there are no secrets from the Holy Spirit. Offenses are severely punitive; O Divino Espírito Santo é vingativo (English: The Holy Spirit is vengeful), and holy vows/promises to God should be kept. Seven spiritual virtues guide the brotherhood of the faithful: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
  • Egalitarianism — all brothers are equal, and all can be mordomos (English: leader of the brotherhood), and all may be crowned in their ritualized functions as the emperor, receiving equal respect and obedience when invested with this authority: it is the practical application of the Joachimite principles.
  • Solidarity and Charity — in the distribution of alms (meat, soup and milk traditionally), the poor are privileged recipients who equally take part in the celebrations, while all offenses are pardoned in order to receive the Holy Spirit.
  • Autonomy from the Church; the cult of the Holy Spirit is not dependent on the formal organization of the Church, nor are the clergy needed to participate in the practices; there are no intermediaries between the devotees and the Divine. Over time, in practice, this tenant of Joachmite spirituality has become more obscure, as the Church plays a role in blessing the events (through processions to the local church and masses held auspiciously for the feast)

The organization of the cult, with some variation between the islands, and between the Azorean diaspora includes the following structures:


The Irmandade (English: Brotherhood) is the organizational nucleus of the cult, comprising the brothers, voluntarily registered (and accepted) and who are all equal in rights and responsibilities. Although they have historically been exclusively masculine, both women and men are accepted, as are members of different origins or titles. This rule was rarely violated, although on some islands there did exist Impérios dos nobres, which only accepted brothers from the local aristocracy.[6] Each irmandade is a territorial unit, constituted as local associations of neighbours, grouping families and residents from within a particular parish or locality. These groups have defined compromises, based on consensual rules that are not written, but recognized by the members. In cases where the diocese or authorities have attempted to impose or intervene in the businesses of these groups, there has generally been passive resistance and indignation from its members.


Each irmandade is organized around the Império do Divino Espírito Santo, normally a small structure, with a distinct architectural style where the faithful conduct their rituals. The architecture of the Impérios vary from island to island; from simple tile-roofed buildings (such as in Santa Maria) to grande chapels with ornate facades and crowned with an imperial crown (in Terceira). It is used as a place to store the reliqueries, penants, symbols; to cook and/or distribute the offerings; and to perform some of the religious services associated with the event. The appearance of permanent impérios began in the last half of the 19th century, probably resulting from money remitted from emigrants in the Brazilian and/or Californian diaspora. Until this point, the cult would realize their services in treatros, structures constructed principally for the events, that were later torn down. The Azorean diaspora, particularly those from New England and Canada, in addition to small structures, would construct larger enclosed salons owing to the conditions in these environments.


During each celebration, one member of the irmandade would receive the designation of mordomo, which was normally made by drawing straws or name selection from a hat, usually by a young child.[7] Many irmandades admit that voluntarism is common, when one of the brothers will make an offering or promessa (English: promise) to the Holy Spirit, necessitating an act of benevolence and charity. The mordomo is responsible for coordinating the collection of funds for the feast, the organization of the event, the peoples invited, the purchase of meat, bread, wine, etc. and generally seen as the supreme authority of the brothers during the event.

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