quarta-feira, 9 de março de 2011

The coming to Póvoa de Varzim

The coastal town of Póvoa de Varzim meant a lot to Alexandrina. It was there that she learned the rudiments of reading and writing, and something of urban life, to have experience of ways of life other than those of the agricultural surroundings she was born into – things like commerce and fishing and urban leisure pursuits. It was here, too, that she got to know the sea to which reference is frequently made in her writings; the greater part of her free time was spent near the sea.
It was in Póvoa that she received her first Holy Communion, and frequented the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows, where she could appreciate a liturgy which was certainly richer, on the great religious feasts than she was used to in Balasar.
Fr Pinho lived in Póvoa when he first came to Balasar, and many of her faithful friends lived in this town too.
In her Autobiography she remembers the time that she passed in Póvoa, but Fr Leopoldine Mateus (a native of Lapa and who was coadjutor of the Matriz  – the main parish church in Portuguese towns and cities – of Póvoa) also registers some useful information on this period in articles that he wrote for Ala-Arriba newspaper.

“Alexandrina, at the age of six, and Deolinda, nine, had come to the pension of a carpenter of Póvoa de Varzim because there was no school for girls in Balasar,” wrote Fr Leopoldine[1]. She, in turn, dictated:

In January 1911, I went with my sister Deolinda to Póvoa de Varzim, to frequent the school. I do not want to think how much I suffered with being separated from my family. I cried very much and for a long time.

In accordance with Fr Umberto Pasquale, “the two sisters had been placed in the house of the carpenter Peter Teixeira Novo, in Rua da Junqueira[2]. They attended the “Mónica Cardia” school where their teacher was Dona Emily Rosa de Freitas Álvares, who lived on Rua Almirante Reis”.
As Póvoa de Varzim was not then divided in three parishes (Matriz, St José of Ribamar and Lapa) as it is today, it can be said that little Alexandrina was at that time a parishioner of the Matriz living in a street that today is part of St José of Ribamar parish.
She continues:

They distracted me, they cheered me, they made me do everything they wanted and, after some time, I resigned myself.
I continued to be very troublesome: I hung from the street-cars which were called ‘americans’, I hung on tight and then let go my grip and fell to the ground; then I crossed the street, when they were passing, so that the conductor wouldn’t report to me the owner. Oft I ran away from the house and went to gather seaweed on the beach, going into the sea as the fisherwomen do; I’d bring the seaweed back to the house and give it to the mistress, who would later sell it to farmers. The master didn’t approve of this so I would do it in secret, and quickly.

Fr Leopoldine Mateus, who knew his illustrious parishioner well, left this testimony on her relation with the sea and the people that worked there:

Our Alexandrina, still small and not accustomed to the proximity of the ocean, because she came from an inland village, was impressed in such way that she could appreciate the sufferings of those who lived off the sea. She was touched by their hardships, as if they were members of her own family.
This is why, years later, when fishermen visited her imprisoned on her bed, she knew how to speak to them, how to comfort and encourage them using expressions that a stranger to their way of life would not know how to employ.
 In her conversations, never failed to encourage their devotion to Our Lady (to the heavenly Mother, as she used to say), Star of the Sea, Lady of Navigators and of all those who travel on the sea.

Rua da Junqueira during young Alexandrina’s time there
Alexandrina attended the primary school on the second floor of this building
Póvoa’s anchorage at the beginning of the 20th century

[1] The excerpts of Fr Leopoldine that we transcribe belong to his article “Alexandrina Maria da Costa e os homens do mar”, and it was published in the “Ala Arriba” in 14/1/56.
[2] The name of Peter Teixeira Novo’s wife was Maria Mataca. It is interesting to note that Alexandrina had been in Rua da Junqueira on a previous occasion… indeed, before she was born, when her mother went there to announce to Alexandrina’s father that she was pregnant and, to her humiliation, discovered him with another woman.

The First Communion and the Confirmation

The first biography of Alexandrina that was published presented her as “a victim of the Eucharist”. Indeed the Eucharist has a place unique in her life; hence her biographers value the words that follow:

It was in Póvoa de Varzim that I received my first Communion, at age of seven. It was Rev Fr Álvaro Matos[1] who examined me on doctrine, confessed me and gave me, for the first time, the Sacred Host. As a prize, I received a pretty chaplet and a holy image. When I communicated, I was kneeling, in spite of being so small, and I looked at the Sacred Host, and received it in such way that it remained engraved on my soul; it seemed to join me to Jesus so that nothing could evermore separate me from Him. It seemed to clutch my heart! The joy I felt was inexplicable.
I told everybody this good news. The person in charge of my education took me to communion daily.

Therefore this text was translated into many languages; let’s look at it in the Polish version:
«W Povoa de Varzim – opowiada Alexandrina w swej Autobiografii – przystąpiłam do pierwszej Komunii św. Miałam wtedy 7 lat. Przyjęłam Komunię św. na kolanach. Mimo niskiego wzrostu mogłam widzieć Hostię. Wydarzenie to wyryło się w mojej duszy. Sądziłam, że zjednoczyłam się z Jezusem tak, że już więcej się od Niego nie odłączę. Wydaje mi się, że On zawładnął moim sercem. Radości, która mnie przepełniła, nie sposób wyrazić. Wszystkim ogłosiłam tę dobrą nowinę...»

Although mystic, she needs a common experience to express her thoughts and feelings. Let’s read this allegory, where be resurrecting memories of Póvoa’s City Council building, although its authoress knew other buildings with arches such as the Hall of the Cathedral of Braga, the Arches of the Central Avenue, also in Braga, etc.):

The great building of arches is preserved within me:
It is white, whiter than snow.
Close to it there are stairs that allow passage to all the places in this building,
And I am these stairs.
I feel that I am
And I feel that through me passengers who seek refugee in the building ascend continuously.
I feel them going up;
I feel that they go to the door of salvation
They do not cheer me up, nor afford me consolation.
I want them to rise, I exert myself so that they do not run into danger,
But me, poor me,
I remain always immersed
In my endless darknesses … (28/6/45)

Portugal was at the beginning of the First Republic when many bishops lived outside their dioceses, as a punishment for not accepting the impositions of the Cultual Commissions. Msgr. Antonio Barbosa Leão, who confirmed Alexandrina, was at that time bishop of the Algarve, from where he had been banished on 6th January 1912 (he was later appointed Bishop of Porto).

It was in Vila do Conde that I received the Sacrament of Confirmation, administered by Msgr. Bishop of Porto. I remember very well this ceremony and received it with much consolation.
At the moment I was being anointed, I do not know what I felt in myself; it seemed me to be a supernatural grace, a grace that transformed me and united me more and more to Our Lord.
I wish I could express myself better on this matter, but I don’t know how to[2].

Above she used the image of arches, here she is still using architectural features, this time towers. And here, too, Alexandrina concludes that she has difficulties in expressing herself:

My body, destroyed by pain,
Does not have the value of the dirtiest rag,
But neither is it a rag.
It is my soul, O Jesus, O Jesus, I do not know where it walks.
It seems to be in some towers, such high, high towers,

But sad and deep in darkness;
They are neither towers of the earth, nor towers of the sky;
I do not know what they are.
They threaten to fall before the winds and storms at each moment.
The soul trembles, terrified.
These towers remind me of the great old monuments, dark, full of arches,
that nobody can enter or leave without a guide.
There are many entrances and they are so high!
I fear to leave by means of them, I fear because I am alone, without light, without a guide.
There are so many walls surrounding me:
They cause me so much terror that even with a light and guide
I could not rid myself of this feeling. (14/1/49)

I am in the same towers,
But, day after day, I live without feeling life within them anymore.
The more I work the more I see work to do;
Or better, the Artist who works in me does not stop working;
He always finds something to perfect.
He sees everything and I see everything,
Even in the darkness and mortal blindness in which I exist.
These towers are surrounded by new towers, from moment to moment.
I am enclosed within them and see no way out;
I do not know how to extricate myself from them.
They are dreadful;
They are growing, growing, and I am inside them.
My soul would like to give a clear idea of what these towers are,
Of what happens inside them, but I do not know;
And I feel myself being crushed mightily between their walls!
They are walls that seem to be as ancient as eternity.
Oh my God, I do not know what else to say; I deliver myself to Thee! (21/1/49)

Main altar of Póvoa de Varzim’s Matriz
Do the symbolic “great building of arches” mentioned in the Alexandrina’s text evoke a distant memory of  Póvoa’s Town Hall?
Fr Álvaro Matos
Main chapel of the Vila do Conde’s Matriz, where Alexandrina was confirmed
Msgr. António Barbosa Leão, the bishop who confirmed Alexandrina

[1] This priest lived at the side of the Matriz, in front of the actual parochial residence.
[2] It is not uncommon for Alexandrina to recognize her limitations of expression, even though she has much to say.
The parish priest of Vila do Conde was then the distinguished Monsignor José Augusto Ferreira.
It is not impossible that the occasion of Alexandrina’s confirmation was also that of the writer José Régio.
The archbishop of Braga, Msgr. Manuel Baptista da Cunha, would live part of his exile in Vila do Conde (19th December 1912 to 13th May 1913), where he died of natural causes.

Our Lady of Sorrows

Póvoa had and has three Marian churches, the Matriz, the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows and the Church of Lapa. Alexandrina, who frequented the Matriz with regularity, also showed an attraction towards the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows. Here her passion for the “heavenly Mother” became established as did her link with Calvary, which would not only be the name of the place where she was to live, but also her hourly experience.

When I went to the fields with the mistress, followed by the other girls, I ran away from their company and went to gather flowers. I’d pluck off their leaves to make floor coverings in the church of Our Lady of Sorrows. It was in May and I delighted in seeing the altar of our heavenly Mother decorated with roses and carnations, and to breathe the perfume of these flowers. Sometimes, I offered our heavenly Mother so many flowers, that my mother took me there just for that purpose.

In her diaries she tells innumerable times of her personal experience of the Calvary tragedy. Let’s look at a few lines of what she dictated on 9th May 1947, when she was given the title “Alexandrina of Sorrows”:

This morning I could not breathe, I could not live, I was taken by terror.
I felt eyes glued on the blood that sprouted of the great helmet of penetrating thorns that surround my head.
In this way I wound through the dark and narrow streets of Calvary[1]. …
Oh how painful the trip was!
How much it cost me to get to Calvary!
Jesus came; He gave light to my soul and said to me:
- My daughter, my daughter, my Alexandrina, Alexandrina of Sorrows:
Let Me give you this title along with that of My spouse:
Alexandrina of Sorrows!
Take courage!

One day little Alexandrina was sent to Aguçadoura (some kilometres north of Póvoa) to petition donations for the cult of Our Lady of Sorrows. The chaplain of this chapel was then Fr José Cascão (we will speak more of him presently.)
Now we can see that a “bad idea” took the fancy of the little girl of Balasar:

The chaplain of Our Lady of Sorrows decided to organize groups of girls, to get funds for the cult of the chapel. These groups had been allotted various areas throughout the neighbouring parishes of Póvoa de Varzim. I went to Aguçadoura. We accepted everything they gave us, like potatoes, onions, etc… We asked and asked, but we were given little and we had the bad idea to creep into a field and take about 2kgs of potatoes. I was one of those who did this, while the others watched. We delivered all the goods together, not telling anybody what we had done[2].

Another Marian shrine in Alexandrina’s life was Our Lady of Faith, in Laundos, about 6kms from Póvoa. She would also go to Sameiro, near Braga, for the National Eucharistic Congress in 1924 shortly before being confined to bed.
Mountains are also important to her, in this case that of St. Felix. The mountain that appears repeatedly in her writings is that of Calvary.

I remember that I followed my mistress to Laundos, to fulfil a promise she had made to Our Lady of Health. Her daughter and my sister went with us. We helped her, catching hold of her hand, because she covered the way on her knees, and I went on before, removing all the little stones on the path. Her daughter, who was older than us, treated the pilgrimage as a joke. I was very dedicated to the lady and when somebody gave me any good things, fruits, candies, etc., I shared them with her, which pleased us both. I did these things because that was the way my heart wanted it, although I was very bad[3].

In the Autobiography, the writer’s insistence on emphasizing her wickedness is notorious. But these ‘wickednesses’ are never more than minor faults. Here we look at one of the best known.

On one occasion, my sister asked for permission to go to study in house of a colleague who lived close, and I wished to go too. As the mistress of the house did not let me, I cried and called her “poveira” (that is, a poor fisherwoman of Póvoa). I was angry. She did not punish me, but she said me that I could not confess the fault until I had asked her forgiveness. My sister told me the same. This gave me much repugnance and, as I wanted to go to confession and communion, I stifled my pride. I knelt down and, with raised hands, asked for her pardon. She was moved to tears and forgave me. I felt great joy, the following day, to be able to confess and to receive Jesus.

Fr Umberto Pasquale associates the texts referring to towers to the Tower of Hermas, a famous old mystical symbol of the Church which appears in the book Shepherd of Hermas, in the early years of Christianity.
The Lighthouse of Regufe in Póvoa seems to be the nearest approach a model for this luminous tower.

I feel that this tower in me is raised higher each time.
The artist in charge of the work does not stop working.
To what a height I rose,
I keep going up inside this tower,
As before, I am the same tower!
The light goes up with me.
The fatigue of seeing all this makes me faint.
The light is of the world, it is not mine;
It is to illuminate the tower
And also ensures that I see it:
It lays below in such a way!
I feel the distance from the sky to the earth.
This is as I see it!
This light leaves nothing hidden:
It penetrates utterly, and makes all visible.
O, what misery there is in souls,
What silt hides bodies and spreads over all humanity!
What horror! What horror!
O world, as I see you!
The more the tower goes up,
The more light it generates,
The more the world is mud
And more my heart feels the pain of the earth.
I cannot resist this pain… (15/3/45)

Alexandrina uses, as in those excerpts of her Autobiography that have been transcribed here, a mundane prose, without images. In other situations however, as we have also seen, her texts attain great poetical heights.
It would be negligent, when speaking of her time passed in Póvoa, to omit any allusion to storms; and the image of storms and other marine phenomena as these occur in many of her pages, reflecting once again the importance her sojourn on the coast. This example is meaningful:

I am like a shipwreck which sinks to the depths of the sea.
And, in this sea without shores, I sail through the depths,
But with the power of the water, not with my own strength.
Sometimes, this shipwreck, my body which is already a corpse,
Indeed a skeleton, almost disintegrated,
Comes to the surface to receive life,
To dive and to die again.

Jesus, my beloved Jesus,
If you were not You, with Your love,
If  there were no souls,
I would not be a victim, I would not suffer like this!
It is for You, the light and strength of my pain, that I suffer.
It is for Your love that, gladly, I let the pain consume my body.
What a tremendous storm!
From one side, then another, the raging anger of the wind attacks me;
Raging, it attempt to root out the forces which sustain me. 

The fear that Alexandrina showed before the National Republican Guards may seem exaggerated, but this body, a creation of the republican regimen, came to symbolize all the atrocities that were being committed against the Church: religious houses closed, bishops exiled, priests pursued, building religious nationalized… In Póvoa the college of the Dorothean Sisters was converted into barracks, construction work on the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was suspended, priests of the religious orders were humiliated…[4]

After a vacation, my sister and I went to Póvoa de Varzim; we had guardians with us, but only after we had crossed the county boundary. We went by the railway and saw, far ahead, two republican guards. We were afraid of them and hid around a corner. As my sister was carrying a little hemp basket they supposed that she was hiding matches, forbidden at that time, and they pursued us.
We did not run away and we cried out loud.
Some people heard our cries and came to our rescue. They were armed and when they understood that we were not carrying contraband they were prepared to fire. Happily, however, we escaped death that time.

In Christo Gesù in Alexandrina, a quatrain is quoted with which, according to Deolinda, Alexandrina liked to annoy the guards. Its sense is more or less this:

With Alfonso Costa’s beard
We will make a brush
To clean the boots
Of good king Manuel.

Alfonso Costa was a politician of the First Republic responsible for outlandish anti-clerical legislation: King Manuel, who was forced into exile, was the last monarch of the Portuguese Royal Family.

If the times were full of aggression against the Church, it was well known that the faithful took great pains to venerate those who were suffering for it.

I remember that I had great respect for priests and, when I was sitting at the street door, alone, or with my sister and cousins, I always stood up as they passed and they acknowledged this by tipping their hats, if they were at some distance, or giving me their blessing, if they were passing nearby.
I observed, sometimes, that some people criticised this, but I liked it and sometimes I sat outside on purpose so that I could stand up the moment a priest passed by just to show to my devotion and respect for the Lord’s ministers.

Main altar of the Our Lady of Sorrows chapel.
Our Lady of Sorrows Chapel.
Parish Church of Aguçadoura.
Our Lady of Health Chapel, in Laundos.
The symbolic tower of the texts at the side can evoke the Lighthouse of Regufe

[1] Although solely interior, Alexandrina’s experience of the Passion was not less painful than when she relived it visibly.
[2] Alexandrina belonged to the Children of Mary; this association had a nucleus in Our Lady of Sorrows Chapel, which Fr José Cascão had established and directed over a long period. But Alexandrina was enrolled in Cavalões.
She also belonged to the Apostolate of Patients, whose headquarters were in St José of Ribamar. This was a result of the initiative of Dr Abílio Garcia de Carvalho. The priest Manuel da Costa Gomes, who was previously in the parish of St José of Ribamar and had been instrumental in the construction of the parish church, had once, when he was archpriest, made a positive intervention on behalf of Alexandrina.
[3] Although Fr Umberto said that Alexandrina was “goodness personified”, she complains repeatedly of her wickedness. But this does not have to be seen as either exaggeration or mock humility.
[4] On the expulsion of the Póvoa’s Jesuits, see Manuel Amorim, “A Companhia de Jesus na Póvoa de Varzim”, in the Cultural Bulletin of Póvoa de Varzim, n.r XXXIII, 1996-1997, pp. 129 et seq.; on the Dorothians, see António Freire, S.J.’s booklet, A Madre Sá, Glória da Póvoa de Varzim, Braga, 1982.

Return to Balasar

“I remained ignorant,” Alexandrina confesses here, but what she did learn allowed her later to apply herself and to write reasonably well.

After eighteen months my sister sat her examination and we came home. My mother wanted me to continue studying but I didn’t want to do that by myself. So I stayed ignorant. We came back to the place where we were born and lived there four months; later we went to live close to the Church, in little house which belonged to my mother.

“The stars shone brightly and served as my companions”                                   

The texts that are now presented belong to a somewhat later date than the preceding ones; they are from the time where its authoress served in the house of a neighbour, Lino Ferreira; in it is disclosed her enchantment when contemplating creation, which she refers to in many of her pages:

Once, from 10 pm to 4 am, I was in Póvoa taking care of four pairs of cattle; the master and one his friend had absented themselves from me, and I, full of fear, passed there those bleak of the night. While I was looking after the cattle, I was contemplating the stars, which shone brightly and served as companions.

The time in Póvoa that now is being related is subsequent to the fateful jump that was to bring on her paraplegia. We believe that this time she was lodged in house of the teacher, Angelina Ferreira, in Junqueira Street. This will become one of her loyal friends and they correspondended with each other.
It is during this period, too, that she got to know Dr Abílio Garcia de Carvalho.
Gabriele Amorth describes her appearance during this sojourn in Póvoa: “She was an attractive girl, with her long black hair, black, lively eyes, and a luminous smile”.
The paragraph with which she finishes the text must be understood, I think, as a decisive way to dismiss an unwanted suitor.

When I was 16, more or less, I went to Póvoa de Varzim to continue my treatment. One morning, when I went to the church, I noticed that somebody was advancing quickly towards me. It was a soldier coming to make advances towards me. I refused immediately. He was insistent and would not take no for an answer. I told him to leave me alone because I was on my way to church.
He asked to be allowed to join me on my way back from church. I said yes, to free myself of him, and with the idea of changing my route on the way home. Returning from church, I looked to see if he was waiting, and as the coast seemed clear, I went by the same street. At moment later, he appeared, I couldn’t tell from where, and said me: “O mistress, what did you promise to me?” He wanted to accompany me home. I stopped and spoke to him saying that I was sick and that my mother did not allow me to date with young men. He took a lot of convincing. Suddenly my mother appeared and scolded me, thinking that I was courting. I did not walk that way again, fearing that I might meet him. And so the matter was concluded. Several times I was pestered by boys paying court to me, but I never accepted them. Once I told one who spoke to me of marriage I arrived to say to one that spoke to me on marriage: “I will never leave my family because of a man”.

Old Póvoa on a day of the fair (beginnings of 20th century).
Panorama of Gresufes, in Balasar, where Alexandrina was born.