What was Alfonso Hall?

The building once known as Alfonso Hall was built by Azorean immigrants to Nantucket in the 1890s on land between Cherry Street and Williams Street. Its original purpose was to house everything required to celebrate the feast of the Holy Spirit each June. This feast is profoundly important to Azorean identity.

Alfonso Hall circa 1895, GPN4470.
Alfonso Hall circa 1895, GPN4470.

Around 1300, Queen Isabel of Portugal promoted devotion to the Holy Spirit and is believed to have offered her crown in supplication for relief of a famine affecting Portugal. The feast is celebrated to this day in towns throughout the nine islands and has been carried across the seas by Azorean emigrants.

Every Azorean town has one or more imperios to house the tables, benches, linens, banners, and decorations needed for the celebration. In each imperio there is also an altar for the town’s replica of Queen Isabel’s crown, and overhead there is usually a dove representing the Holy Spirit. Although they resemble chapels, imperios are not consecrated. They are built by and for each community’s laymen and women who put on the feast each year.

Celebration includes a procession in which a young woman bears the crown between the church and the imperio, while other marchers carry bread to symbolize deliverance from famine. A broth of meat, vegetables, and bread is prepared and offered to everyone along with wine, and participants take part in a dance known as the charmarita. Farm animals decorated with flowers are donated to be auctioned to cover the expense of the feast.

Azorean men began to come to Nantucket as crew on whaleships around 1800, but the arrival of whole Azorean families began about fifty years later. Nantucket’s whaling economy was then in decline, resulting in abundant available housing and a low cost of living on the island. In spite of the economic depression, Azoreans found opportunities in farming, fishing, and the grocery business. One was a man from the island of Graciosa who took the name John Murray on Nantucket. To begin with, he was captain of the whaleship Abby Bradford. On his final cruise, he stopped at Graciosa, picked up his son and daughter-in-law, and brought them to Nantucket, where they prospered in the grocery business.

The Murrays were influential in building Alfonso Hall, as Nantucket’s imperio for celebration of the feast of the Holy Spirit. The building was named for King Alfonso of Portugal at its dedication in 1895. At its dedication, the Azoreans were warmly welcomed by the Nantucket selectmen, one of whom delivered remarks in Portuguese, which he had learned aboard his father’s ship.

Captain John Murray sent to Portugal for a silver crown to be carried in the annual procession from St. Mary’s Church via Orange Street to Alfonso Hall. Today the crown is in safekeeping at St. Mary’s rectory on Orange Street.

After decades, Alfonso Hall became Knights of Columbus Hall, and then it was renamed Father Griffin Hall. Throughout its history, it has been a site for dancing, auctions, and public service.

To learn more about Azoreans and others who have contributed to Nantucket’s economy and culture, see Frances Karttunen’s book, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, available from the NHA Museum Shop and from Spinner Publications of New Bedford.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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