It’s five thirty in the morning and a group of Romeiros – men on their first of a seven-day pilgrimage around the Azorean island of São Miguel – leave their home church at a clipped pace. They sing rounds of the Hail Mary through the dark and empty streets, like a coarse fisherman’s play on a monastic chant. At the next church they stop. Huddled, their heads covered in scarves to mute the spray of the Atlantic chill, they pray. Then they continue up the mountains that make the terrain of the volcanic island.
The Romeria is a tradition unique to São Miguel, the largest of nine islands in the Azorean archipelago belonging to Portugal. Its origins date back to the mid-sixteenth century, when a series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions inspired penitent Catholics to petition God for safety. Today, each village collects their own group of Romeiros; volunteer men and boys who call each other irmãos–brothers–as they walk. During that time, their jobs, family lives, and personal backgrounds will not matter. As is tradition, they begin mid-spring at the start of the Lenten season, forty days before Easter. They carry no food and very little money. They eat what is arranged for them: bananas that hang heavy on trees, hunks of pungent cheese and bread made on the island, and steaming coffee in the morning. At night, villagers meet them at church and welcome some into their homes, their presence considered a blessing on the house. When not enough homes, the remaining sleep on the church floor.