One of the most joyful expressions of love and happiness can be witnessed in the faces of the Noivas de Santo António (Brides of St Anthony) who take their wedding vows in the hallowed setting of Lisbon’s magnificent Sé Cathedral each June.
In 1629, Francisco da Rocha bequeathed the sum of 40,000 reis to a poor orphan whose name was drawn out of a hat, the only condition being that a marriage ceremony be held on the 12th of June each year, the day of Santo António.
For a variety of reasons, this worthy and quite unique tradition lost a lot of impetus as the years went by, but thankfully, more than three centuries later, it was revived by the daily Lisbon newspaper, Diário Popular, which organised collective marriage ceremonies for poor young couples throughout the 1950s and 60s.
In 1958, twenty-six couples were united by marriage in the (indicated on the map below) and the tradition continued without interruption until 1974, a troubled year due to the Carnation Revolution, a bloodless overthrow of the country’s repressive dictatorship in which soldiers carried flowers in the barrels of their rifles.
These days the Casamentos de Santo António (Weddings of St Anthony) are a high-profile event operated in conjunction with Lisbon City Council, with a large-scale ceremony uniting sixteen happy couples in wedlock.
To qualify, at least one of the potential brides or grooms must reside in the Lisbon area, with both being legally available to marry and willing to comply with all the required formalities, including press interviews, TV appearances, etc.
The Casamentos de Santo António have become such a popular attraction that the wedding venue has been moved from the church of Santo António where the saint was born to Lisbon Cathedral, one of the city’s iconic buildings located just a stone’s throw away.
Saint Anthony himself was commonly regarded as a holy matchmaker since, according to legend, he was an excellent conciliator of couples.
He is particularly venerated in Lisbon, where on the day of his death, the 13th of June, a public holiday is celebrated in his honour.
Santo António was born in Lisbon in 1195 in a house that is said to have existed in the place where the church in his name now stands. He first studied at Lisbon’s cathedral and church of São Vicente de Fora before completing his religious education at the church of Santa Cruz in the city of Coimbra, where he spent much of his life.
Still very young, he joined the Order of the Franciscans and was a very learned and passionate preacher and became known for his devotion to the poor and his ability to convert heretics.
He taught theology at several European universities and spent his last months living in Padua, Italy, where he died in 1231. The Catholic Church canonized him less than a year after his death and in 1934 Pope Pius XI proclaimed him the second patron saint of Portugal, along with Our Lady of the Conception.
After all the pomp and ceremony of the Casamentos de Santo António on the 12th of June, Lisbon explodes into life as the Festas get underway featuring a lively carnival-style parade down Avenida da Liberdade, followed by a long and far from teetotal night of festivities in Alfama, Bairro Alto and many other parts of the city.