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Volume 37 Issue 14 • July 26 - Aug 1, 2007 now in our 37th season

Alfonso Hall and the Murrays of Orange Street

by Frances Kartunen

In June 2006 the Nantucket Historical Association sponsored a study trip to the Azores.  Those people who had the good fortune to go saw many brightly painted little chapels dedicated to the Holy Ghost.  Many of these chapels were built in the 1890s, just when Azorean immigrants built one for themselves on Nantucket.

The appearance of Nantucket’s building is so different from those in the Azores, however, that today a visitor would have a hard time recognizing it. Further obscuring its original purpose are two name changes it has undergone since its dedication in 1895.

Facing on Cherry Street and backing up on Williams Street is a large building that now bears the name of the Rev. Joseph M. Griffin.  Earlier, it was known as Knights of Columbus Hall, but to begin with, it was known as Alfonso Hall.  Through all the changes it has been a venue for dancing. Really venerable Nantucketers know the ditty:

The shades of night were falling fast
When ‘round Consue McGinty passed,
On his way to Alfonso Hall
To shake his leg and have a ball.

McGinty’s identity is lost in the mists, but Alfonso I was King of Portugal at the time of the building’s dedication.  Houses along the way were outlined in lights as the Nantucket Brass Band led a parade along Orange Street toward the new hall.  The Nantucket selectmen marched in the parade, and their arrival was greeted with fireworks.  Portuguese and American flags intermingled, and a portrait of George Washington hung next to one of King Alfonso, for whom the hall was about to be named.  The Portuguese national anthem was sung, and a speaker for the Azorean community delivered “an address in Portuguese overflowing with patriotic affection for his native land and grateful allegiance to the country of his adoption from which he had received such substantial benefit since he landed penniless on its shore.”

In response, the chairman of the Nantucket Board of Selectmen welcomed the Portuguese immigrants to U.S. citizenship and complimented their new social hall.  Another selectman demonstrated his own Portuguese language skills, acquired in his youth from crewmembers on his father’s ship.  Arthur Gardner, “in behalf of the native Nantucketers,” expressed gratitude for the entertainment and praised “our Portuguese friends.”  The Azoreans sang traditional songs and performed a traditional dance called the chamarrita, and Barrett’s Orchestra played for American-style dancing.

The builders of Alfonso Hall had come to Nantucket from an archipelago that lies far out in the ocean due east of ‘Sconset.  The islands are between seven hundred and eight hundred miles west of the Portuguese mainland, and in the nineteenth century, they were known as the Western Islands.

The Feast of the Holy Ghost is celebrated in towns on the nine islands throughout the month of June.  Every town has one or more buildings dedicated to these celebrations.  They are used for housing and displaying the decorations and the insignia of the Holy Ghost.

In preparation for the feast, food is gathered in and long tables are set up in front of the chapel.  No expense is spared in decorating.  People wear their finest clothes, and farm carts are scrubbed and covered with flowers and ribbons.  Animals donated to be auctioned are bedecked with flowers too.  After a silver crown has been carried through the streets of the town, the food is shared among neighbors, carried to the poor, and sold to raise money for the following year.  Music and dancing follow.

When whole Azorean families relocated to Nantucket in the late 1800s, they brought with them their devotion to their feast of the Holy Ghost, and they built Alfonso Hall first and foremost to host the old festa in their new home.  Seized by American megalomania, rather than constructing a little chapel, they built the large social hall that stands to this day.

In 1908 the Inquirer and Mirror reported that, “The grounds about Alfonso Hall presented a gay spectacle last Sunday, it being the annual Feast of the Holy Ghost.  A large arch of green had been erected over the road-way in front of the hall, and American and Portuguese flags lent a touch of patriotism to the scene.  Inside the hall a large altar had been constructed, wherein stood an image of the Holy Ghost, the crown and other emblems connected with the celebration, all lighted by candles and surrounded by massive cakes and other good things.  Early in the afternoon over two hundred persons sat down to the feast, young and old joining in the celebration.  Later the offerings were sold at auction to the highest bidders, the proceeds being devoted to the purposes of the Portuguese United Benevolent Association.”

Four years later, the newspaper reported, “The weather was superb and the procession of little girls in their white gowns, followed by a large number of the Portuguese men and accompanied by the Nantucket band, made a remarkably pretty sight, the ceremony attendant upon the blessing of the crown being the most impressive part of the observance.  This crown was brought over from Porto Portugal in 1905 for John Murray of this town, to whom it belongs.  The feast itself was held in the hall, where the silver crown rested on the altar.  Everyone who visited the place received a cordial welcome and was invited to partake.  During the afternoon the usual auction was held, with John Murray serving as auctioneer, the proceeds from the sale going into the treasury of the Portuguese society.”

Captain John Murray, had been instrumental in organizing Nantucket’s Azoreans, building Alfonso Hall, sending to Portugal for the crown, and sponsoring the celebrations.  Born on the Azorean island of Graciosa, he had captained the whaling schooner Abby Bradford out of Nantucket throughout the 1860s.  When he retired from the sea, he fetched his son John Murray Jr. and his daughter-in-law Anna from Graciosa.  Together they operated a grocery business on Orange Street.  When Captain Murray died in 1899, his obituary stated that he “was a highly esteemed citizen, and his funeral was very largely attended, many citizens, including the members of the Portuguese United Benevolent Association, accompanying the funeral cortege on foot, and the flags at Alfonso hall were displayed at half-mast.”

John Murray Jr. survived his father by two decades.  When he died, his funeral services were held at his Orange Street home, and he was interred in Prospect Hill Cemetery with full Masonic rites.  Members of the four organizations to which he had belonged—Union Lodge F. & A. M., the United Benevolent Society, the John B. Chace Engine Company No. 4, and the Portuguese Fraternity of the United States—served as pallbearers, and “as a mark of respect, the stores on Orange Street were closed during the hour of funeral services.”

Frances Karttunen’s book, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, is available at bookstores and from Spinner Publications, New Bedford. Look for Law and Disorder in Old Nantucket in bookstores this summer.

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