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This small baroque church is consecrated by one of the most loved saints of the Portuguese capital: Saint António of Padua. Strangely, believe it or not, he was not an Italian saint but was as Lisbon born and bred as Belém cakes.
Saint Antonio was born in Lisbon in 1195, in 1220 he joined the Franciscan order and was sent to Morocco in 1221. On returning to Portugal his ship was battered by a storm and ended up on the coast of Sicily, thus his religious life in Italy began. He remained there until his death on the 13th of June 1231. Lisbonites have it clear in their minds, this saint is their very own and was born in the city. What’s more, they feel the greatest devotion for him.
Saint Antonio was known for being an original speaker. He dedicated all his life to working with the poor and converting those without faith, and for this he was canonised just one year after his death in 1232. Seven-hundred years later, Pope Pio XI declared him the patron saint of Lisbon, making him today the most popular saint, as well as having the most devotees.
The church you will find yourself in front of has preserved little of the original. In fact, only the crypt was left standing after everything else was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake.
It was believed that on the site of what was the old church, Saint Antonio had been born in the 12th century. For this reason, it was decided to build a new church on the same spot, a project carried out by Mateus Vicente. The Portuguese architect erected, in the middle of the 18th century, a baroque church with various neo-classic elements. For example, in the façade you will be able to observe undulating curves and Ionic columns next to the entrance portico.
The devotion of Lisbon’s inhabitants for the saint was so great that they financed part of the church’s construction. This was done through donations collected by the city’s children who went from house to house asking for ´a coin for Saint Antonio`.
Inside the church various items will grab your attention. Firstly, the vestry, through which you can get to the original crypt, is covered by a modern mosaic panel made when Pope John Paul II visited in 1982.
Secondly, you will clearly see in this small church the level of veneration that Saint Antonio inspires. The floor of the crypt is covered with coins, and in the past the devout filled the walls with messages, orations, and thanksgiving notes, thus producing a spectacular image.
In honour of Saint Antonio, each year on the 13th of June, the day he died, Lisbon throws a party. The district of la Alfama, where the church is located, is at the very heart of the celebrations. A lively and attractive procession of murmuring and candle–carrying people follows the saint’s image along the alleyways. If you visit Lisbon in this period, make sure you do not miss it, as you will have few chances to experience so close up the popular festivals of the city.
In the evening on the 12th people gather in the streets to have dinner in the open air. Grilled sardines, pepper salad and red wine are served in great quantity. There is also music and dancing.
And what’s more, visitors are welcome, becoming other regular members of the celebration.
What you can bet on when visiting the “Santo António à Sé” church is that you will find recently married couples there. It is a tradition or maybe superstition, whatever you prefer to call it, to bring the saint flowers on the wedding day so that the marriage is a fortunate one. And who dares to contradict popular wisdom?
Flags, decorated doorways, open-air dinners, dances, concerts…. The truth is that Saint Antonio brings colour to the city of Lisbon and June has become one of the busiest months of the cultural calendar. If you are lucky and your visit coincides with the celebration, you will enjoy the city even more.
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