When Father Filipe de Paiva Macedo arrived in Bermuda to minister to Portuguese-speaking Catholics in 1958, he could not have anticipated that his calling would be political as well as spiritual. But for the next 24 years, the determined priest tended not only to their religious needs, but answered their prayers on the political front. He fought for improved working conditions for Açorean workers and was responsible for pushing the Bermuda government to change a policy that kept men working on contract in Bermuda separated for years from their wives and children back home in the Azores.
The native of northern Portugal arrived in Bermuda a year after the government formalised a policy which did not allow wives of Açorean workers to join their husbands. The policy covered workers from countries that were not part of the British Commonwealth. As the largest group in this category, Açorean workers were the ones most affected. The policy caused hardship for many.
Coming from a family of 14, Macedo believed that a strong family unit was crucial to the wellbeing of workers. As a consequence, reunification of Açorean families became his personal crusade. “Father Filipe knew what the people suffered.” recalls parishioner Mariano Semos. “He knew the Portuguese needed their wives and families here.”
“He figured that families should be together and that children should be brought up with their fathers,” says Elsie Martin, another friend. “He was educated and made up his mind that the people were not going to be treated the way they had been.”
Açoreans had been living with these restrictive policies for more than a decade by the time Macedo arrived in Bermuda. In 1960, government relaxed the policy and allowed men who had arrived on the Island before 1957 to bring their wives here.
The enforced separation for those who arrived after 1957 caused pain for families on both sides of the Atlantic. Financial hardship meant that many men could not afford to visit the Açores, missing out on their children’s formative years. Marriages were inevitably strained by the distance, and loneliness was often the status quo for the men living here.
Macedo was determined to help them. Açoreans were not used to having someone from mainland Portugal champion their cause. In fact, through the centuries, Açoreans, like many other colonial peoples, had been treated poorly by the country that ruled them. Harsh policies by the Portuguese government had in many ways prompted their migration in the first place.
There has always been conflict between the islanders and the mother country,” explains Mary Reis, another parishioner and friend. “Many times the Açoreans felt the Portuguese (acted as if they were) superior.”
Despite being from the mainland, Macedo immersed himself in Açorean traditions and encouraged his parishioners to celebrate their culture, which made them feel more comfortable in Bermuda. He spearheaded such celebrations as the Festival of the Holy Spirit, the most important festival on San Miguel, the largest of the Açorean islands. These festivals are still celebrated here today.
“Father Filipe’s service in Bermuda provided his first contact with his colonial counterparts,” says Reis. “He brought them together in faith.
He established the Portuguese choir at St. Theresa’s Cathedral, where he served from 1958 to 1981, forming a youth group and hosting marriage seminars. He founded and cited Boa Nova (Good News), a monthly newsletter written in Portuguese, which covered everything from church matters to football. In 1970, Macedo founded the Portuguese Association with a visiting priest from Canada. He was also an honorary member of Vasco da Gama Club, where he often chatted and enjoved a game of cards with Portuguese workers.
Macedo was taken into the workers’ confidence and their homes and hearts–not only because he was their spiritual leader, but because he was their friend. “Father Filipe came most every day to see us,” says Semos, who at the time was housed with 22 other men at a Devonshire farm where he was employed.
“He was the best Portuguese priest Bermuda has had. He would pray with us and say the rosary, but he would also play cards. He was a friendly man.” Macedo soon learned that separation from their families was only part of the broader injustice that Açoreans faced in Bermuda. Within four years, he had become their advocate. In August 1962, the government in Lisbon appointed him Portuguese vice-consul. It was the first time that the Portuguese had enjoyed representation in Bermuda. Macedo spent the next six years negotiating with government to change the laws that kept families apart. He also fought for better living conditions, better wages and shorter working hours.
He conducted negotiations through an interpreter–he spoke limited English–and faced staunch opposition. But he was effective and as a result, Açoreans referred to him as “the man who could not speak English very well but who got the job done.” Described as a tough negotiator, Macedo made progress because he had excellent people skills. “When he wanted to reprimand his flock for something,” says Reis, “he would always do so in a direct but tactful way. He really had a way with the people.” Concessions came in fits and starts. At first, wives were not allowed to visit at all. Then they were allowed to visit for six-month periods, separated by a mandatory two-year period during which no visits were allowed. This still brought heartache when the wives had to return and many tried surreptitiously to stay. In 1966, Macedo received a show of support from other churches when, led by the Anglican Bishop, they presented a petition to the government, calling the enforced separation “contrary to natural justice and Christian morality.”
Macedo was not averse to brinkmanship– fed up with government inaction, he stopped the flow of Açorean labour between May 1967 and November 1968. He refused to sign their papers, according to a 1969 Mid-Ocean News article, which also said: “Charges of exploitation were made, while government departments, farmers and hotels became desperate for help.”
In 1968, a year after government allowed men who had been in Bermuda for seven years to bring their wives and families here, a new contract was signed that brought about improved working conditions. Eventually, in 1973, Açorean workers were given the same rights as other workers on contract in Bermuda.
Macedo was recognised by the Vatican for his contributions. He received the Pope’s Medal in 1964. In 1968, he received a commendation from the Portuguese government and in 1981, when he retired to Portugal, he was appointed honorary monsignor. He had performed more than 1,000 marriages in Bermuda and baptised more than 1,000 children. Bermuda remained in his heart, and he was to return to the Island as a locum priest.
His house in Portugal was called Villa Bermuda and from Bermuda postcards, he commissioned large tile plaques which were placed on the tower of his house. One of these depicts St. Theresa’s Cathedral.
Celebrating his golden anniversary as a priest in 1990 he died two years later, in his hometown of Ruivaes at the age of 78.
Bonnie M. Exell, M. S. W., is a former journalist and the granddaughter of Açorean immigrants.
Photographs courtesy of Elsie Martin.