Faith and tradition live on for St. Francis Xavier parishioner

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PROVIDENCE — João Marques can still recall the feasts and devotions of his childhood on the island of São Miguel, especially the Santo Christo Feast his grandmother used to attend. Born and raised in the Azores, he immigrated to Rhode Island at the age of 19 after a brief period living in Venezuela, arriving one day in mid-May to a true New England welcome.

“There was snow all over the place when I came here,” he recalled during an interview at the chancery. “I was in a T-shirt.”

Now a parishioner at St. Francis Xavier Church, East Providence, Marques carries on many of those same traditions as a retired maintenance person and volunteer at the parish, devoting countless hours to the many festivals and daily upkeep of a church that has come to serve as a second home. To those who know him, his actions demonstrate a devout faith and a commitment to keeping alive the many traditions that not only hold a cultural significance but serve as an important expression of faith for the Portuguese Catholic community.

“Everything that he does he does for the love of God and the Church,” said Father Scott Pontes, pastor at St. Francis Xavier, who nominated Marques for a Lumen Gentium Award in the category of Parish Service.

As an employee of the parish for many years, Marques served the physical needs of the church, drawing on his experience as a former mechanic at Hasbro and American Textile Company. Now, at the age of 67, he is retired from full-time parish service but continues to serve the church in whatever capacity necessary, whether decorating the church for Christmas, organizing processions as chairman of one of the parish’s many feasts or taking a look at the parish boiler.

“Having somebody like João to take care of it takes a lot of stress off the pastor,” said Father Pontes. “I’m very happy and lucky that I can call on him anytime. He knows every nook and cranny of that place.”

Marques has always been joined in his participation at the parish by his family, including his wife, Mariana, who serves as parish secretary, and their three daughters. His children, now grown, continue to participate actively in the life of the Church, a connection Marques attributes to his and his wife’s insistence that the family attend all church activities together, including daily Mass, when the girls were young.

“It’s their home. They went through everything over there,” he said.

With the approach of summer, Marques is busy preparing for the annual Holy Ghost feast that takes place between Easter and Pentecost, culminating in a Mass and celebration in June. As the traditional crown is passed from family to family over the seven weeks, he can be found in the church, leading the rosary, or in the kitchen, preparing the traditional soups that serve 250 parishioners every week. Like most of his responsibilities around the church, Marques said he learned to make the soups by watching others and setting his mind to the task.

“I’m always like that. Whatever job that I was in charge of, I feel responsible for that. Whatever I’m responsible for, I get it done. That’s the way that I am.”