By Rose Mary Saraiva, Volunteer Coordinator & Bereavement Services,

Catholic Social Services of Fall River, Inc.

FALL RIVER — Dia dos Amigos e Amigas (Friends Day) is an Azorean tradition that celebrates the bonds of friendship. In this tradition, which has been preserved for decades, friends gather to celebrate and let “loose.” They enjoy the friendships they have cultivated, good times, and take a break from the social norms that often regulate their days and activities. 

The festivities often include luncheons or dinners, gifts, formal attire, and a host of other fun activities that can be as diverse as the group itself. Azorean immigrants brought this tradition, along with so many other beloved traditions, with them as they established new communities around the world 

In keeping with the tradition of Dia dos Amigos, Vidalia Medeiros and a small group of volunteers, hosted such an event on February 9 at Santo Christo Parish in Fall River. Vidalia, along with her sister Judith Medeiros and two other volunteers — Maria Jose Franca and Judy Pavao — organized and prepared the event. The group decorated the hall, made special gifts for all the members, decorated tables with group photos highlighting “friendship,” and played games. Judith Medeiros and Judy Pavao led the group in prayer with a song by Padre Zezinho, SCJ, appropriately entitled, “Oração por meus Amigos” (A Prayer for my Friends). After the prayer, the meal began and like any Portuguese celebration, there was plenty of food, but the favorite, was the soup starter — Canja (chicken soup) prepared by Franca. 

There was an atmosphere of closeness and friendship, a strong sense of camaraderie and shared experiences that was not only evident, but distinctly felt. A group of us were invited to attend from Catholic Social Services, and we were immediately made to feel as if we had been a major part of the group all along. In a sense, we have — Catholic Social Services, along with the Vice-Presidência do Governo Regional, Direção Regional das Comunidades, Governo dos Açores, (Vice-President of the Regional Government, Regional Directorate of Communities, Government of the Azores), co-sponsor the ongoing activities of this vital, but unassuming group. 

Who make up this group? They are simply known as the Santo Christo Senior Group; it is graciously hosted and supported by Father Jeffrey Cabral, pastor, and the parishioners of Santo Christo Church in Fall River. This group started through an initiative of the Azorean government to ensure that the elderly were not alone or forgotten. Through this initiative, funding was made available to the Azorean communities around the world. An alliance was formed with Catholic Social Services more than 20 years ago to be the agency that would serve as the “home base” for the group. The initial group was formed and coordinated by Juraci Ribeiro, a CSS staff member, in 2001. When Ribeiro left, she passed the baton to Vidalia Medeiros and her group of volunteers in 2008. 

The group consisting of 26 members from the Fall River and New Bedford area, meets every Wednesday, and provides a social outlet for those who would otherwise find themselves alone. Elderly individuals often feel isolated and excluded, as other family members, children, and grandchildren are often busy with their own lives and demands. This especially becomes more problematic as they reach retirement age, become disabled, or widowed and lose their connection with co-workers, their spouses’ extended family, and even friendships that were based on them as a couple. For many of our older population, this often leads to low self-esteem, depression, and in some, suicidal ideation. It was the impact that loneliness and isolation have on the elderly that spearheaded initiatives to connect the elderly in the community. 

A look around the room and at the faces of those present, was proof that such programs do have a positive effect and definitely offer lasting benefits that come through genuine connections. As invited guests, Susan Mazzarella, Rui Rosa and myself were quickly “adopted” as one of them and they offered their personal stories unabashedly. There were so many who wanted to simply share, but for the sake of space and time, I would like to share a couple that stood out. 

First meet, Thelma Paula Matos. Thelma has been a part of the group for years; she was introduced to the group by a friend when her husband died in 1994. This fun-loving, enthusiastic individual is quick to share her birth story. Thelma was in such a hurry to be born, that she was delivered in the taxi that was taking her mother to a Rhode Island hospital. Her mother nicknamed her “my butterfly”; and true to the nature of the butterfly, Thelma flitters from person to person, leaving them with a smile or holding their sides with laughter. For Thelma, this group offers her a chance to be with others, to give back, and to simply feel as if she is making a difference. She told me that all her life she has been drawn to help and advocate for children and the elderly — “They are the ones that need our help the most,” she said.

Next meet Maria Jose Franca. Maria Jose joined the group in 2001; she came to the group after becoming disabled. For Maria Jose, the group became a second family, a social outlet, and it was her excuse to get out of the house. Recruited by Juraci from CSS, this gave her a mission or “job” to do, and she jumped at the opportunity. But what Maria Jose is best known for by the group is her soup. Maria Jose prepares a different soup each week that begins the meal the group shares. She shared that her family is taking her and her husband to Las Vegas for their 40th wedding anniversary in a few weeks, and the members are panicking over who will make the soup. 

Now meet, Maria Helena Medeiros. Mrs. Medeiros is one of the original members of the group, joining in 2001, when it was first founded. This soft-spoken woman is beloved by all and has become the unofficial “mom” of the group. It was her membership that brought Vidalia and her sister Judith to the group. Vidalia would bring her mom to the group meetings, joining her on her days off. For Mrs. Medeiros, the group gives her an opportunity to get together not only with her daughters, but with others in her community. It is a social outlet she looks forward to each week, something she missed during the pandemic. 

These are just some of stories, but one can quickly see the common thread — a chance to be with others, to feel like they belong, to be part of something that gives them hope and a feeling of self-worth, and to feel cared for and loved. This care and concern for its members was especially evident during the pandemic, when like many other groups, gatherings did not and could not occur, so members kept track of each other and provided support and presence — ensuring that members stayed connected. 

In addition to the on-going group activities, Vidalia offers a “high tea” a few times per year, which honors members for their accomplishments and perseverance. Members are also encouraged to share their talents with the group and over the years that have had a host of talented individuals. Two current members, Conçeicão Pimentel and Carlos Pavao, are both poetry writers and are given the opportunity to share their artistry with the group. These individuals, like everyone present, are given a voice, a chance to be heard.

Besides orchestrating the group activities, Vidalia also helps the members fill out paperwork, arranges for transportation to and from doctor visits, and has taken individuals to Boston to immigration appointments. When needed, she also helps with groceries and other tasks that older members can no longer do on their own. 

This group, its leadership, volunteers, and the parish community, go above and beyond to provide a welcoming environment for the seniors in our diocesan communities. The group embodies the message of Pope Francis, “Let us protect them, so that nothing of their lives and dreams may be lost. May we never regret that we were insufficiently attentive to those who loved us and gave us life” (Homily from the first World Day for Grandparents, July 2021).

For more information about the Santo Christo Senior Group, contact Vidalia Medeiros at 508-330-1942.