The storeowner told me they were the “brides of St. Anthony,” and it was part of the saint’s feast day traditions. He said the city hall traditionally hosts the bridal couples for free if they are poor.
I was in Lisbon to celebrate the Feast of St. Anthony and had begun the day by attending Mass at his church. I made my way slowly through the crowd to the front altar and found a golden and crystal reliquary on display. At closer examination I noted that some sort of bone was inside. I later found out was part of the saint’s right forearm.
In the front lobby of the church was a small gift shop but what really caught my eye was a group of women selling little bread rolls about the size of golf balls. People were pushing and shoving to make their purchase. As I watched I noted that many of the women went back into the church and pressed the bread against a glass-covered portrait of the saint.
Then I noticed that several women were scribbling little messages on slips of paper, folding them up and sticking them into the frame around the portrait. I followed suit and wrote down a special prayer, dutifully folded it up and tucked it into the frame along with my bread ball.
A Touching Tradition
The tradition of "St. Anthony's Bread" goes back to A.D. 1263 when a child drowned in the Brenta River near the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua. The mother went to St. Anthony and promised that if her child were restored to life, she would give to the poor an amount of wheat equal to the weight of her child.
Her son was saved, and her promise was kept. "St. Anthony's Bread," then, is the promise of giving alms in return for a favor asked of God through St. Anthony's intercession.
For Fans of Fado
Music enthusiasts eager to hear fado, the emotion-laden, dramatic music particular to Portugal are likely to find an image of Anthony right behind the fadista (singer) and instrumentalists.
Fado came long after Anthony, but its major theme is nostalgia and longing—for what is lost and for what has never been gained. Anthony fits right into this scene.
Learning about and taking part in these wonderful customs was fun and I left the church to see what else I could discover about St. Anthony.
Anthony of Padua
To say that Anthony left Portugal behind minimizes his ancestry. The man who became known to many as Anthony of Padua was Portuguese. He was a spiritual seaman, seeking new lands of the soul, just as other Portuguese explorers ventured into unknown waters.
He had the broad worldview of a discoverer—and became a fearless missionary traveling first to Morocco and then through southern France and northern Italy on foot.
While in Rimini, on the Adriatic coast of Italy, he encountered some difficulty in getting the local population to listen to him. Somewhat dejected, he went down to the shore, where the river Ariminus runs into the sea, and began to speak to the fishes.
A Multitude of Fish
No sooner had he spoken a few words when suddenly so great a multitude of fish, both small and great, approached the bank on which he stood. All the fish kept their heads out of the water, and seemed to be looking attentively on St Anthony's face; all were ranged in perfect order and most peacefully, the smaller ones in front near the bank, after them came those a little bigger, and last of all, were the water was deeper, the largest.
As he continued speaking, the fish began to open their mouths and bow their heads, endeavoring as much as was in their power to express their reverence. The people of the city, hearing of the miracle, made haste to go and witness it.
Sardines are a Local Specialty
I had heard that sardines represented those miraculous fish and were an important part of the festivities and so I thought I’d have some for lunch. I went into a nice restaurant almost salivating thinking of the tasty fish.
Alas, the maitre’d almost sneered as he said they did not have sardines. I tried several other restaurants to no avail.
It wasn’t until the guy at the music store directed down a small street lined with outside tables and a variety of small restaurants that I found them.
They were proudly displayed in all their silvery glory in a refrigerated case. Needless to say, my luncheon was totally divine!
It turns out that the opening of sardine season coincides with the Feast of St. Anthony and all over the city people grilled them on every type of grill. The fancy restaurants can’t compete and folks wouldn’t pay their prices for this local specialty.