NEW BEDFORD – Those who knew Joseph E. Fernandes – the late supermarket magnate and fixture of the Portuguese-American community in Massachusetts – say it’s impossible to calculate the true extent of his altruism and influence since he did so much in such a quiet fashion.
“He touched so many lives in so many ways,” said his friend and fellow Madeiran Leonel Teixeira, the former vice-consul of Portugal in Providence. “People have no idea.”
On Sunday, Nov. 26, the Clube Madeirense S. S. Santíssimo Sacramento announced it will be honoring Fernandes’ legacy by naming the 30-by-60-feet pavilion to be built on the Museum of Madeiran Heritage grounds after him and establishing two scholarships in his memory – the Perpetual Joseph E. Fernandes $1,000 Academic Scholarship and the Perpetual Joseph E. Fernandes $1,000 Vocational Award.
“He was not only a great Madeiran, but a great Portuguese-American,” said Steve Duarte, the club’s public relations chairman and chair of the Museum of Madeiran Heritage, while making a toast to celebrate Fernandes’ life and legacy at a special ceremony held at the museum.
“Our hope is to have it [the pavilion] done before the feast in August,” added Duarte.
On hand at the ceremony were Fernandes’ nephew Anthony Pires, his wife Wendy and their children Tom, Chris and Caroline.
“It’s very appropriate; it’s perfect,” said Fernandes’ nephew, reacting to the club’s decision to recognize his uncle.
Fernandes would have turned 100 on March 12, 2023. He passed away on Aug. 19, 2007, at age 84.
“He was the ultimate people person,” recalled his nephew. “He would reach out to anyone. We would have this river of people flowing through our lives because of him… all the organizations he supported, all the people he met, and all the people he knew all over the world.”
Wendy Pires emphasized how Fernandes liked to do things privately.
“He made friends so easily and brought people together,” she said. “Overall, he was a wonderful guy and so enthusiastic about things. We’re always hearing new stories we never knew about what a great guy he was.”
A man of big dreams, Fernandes built a supermarket empire
Born in Arco da Calheta, Madeira, Fernandes immigrated at age one with his parents and siblings, settling in Norton, Mass., where he lived most of his life.
According to his family, he had big dreams even as a young boy riding his bike to deliver groceries around town for his dad.
He went on to graduate from Boston University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree, and later received an honorary doctorate from Stonehill College.
He served in the U.S. Army as a lieutenant during World War II, having earned the ETO-5 Battle Stars Presidential Unit Citation.
According to his personal papers housed at UMass Dartmouth, Fernandes stated that after he graduated from Boston University his father asked him to try his hand in the meat industry.
“So, I tried it, and he retired,” Fernandes stated. “I opened a small market across the street from where I lived. That’s when it all started.”
He founded Fernandes Supermarkets in 1947, building a chain of 37 stores in Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, employing at one time more than 2,700 people. He sold the family business in 1979.
While active in that industry, he served as a member of the Board of Directors for the Food Marketing Institute as well as the Massachusetts Retail Grocers Association, which elected him to their Hall of Fame in 1996. He also served as President of the International Association of Chain Stores headquartered in Paris and the head of Todos Supermarkets in Puerto Rico.
Never forgot his Portuguese roots
As he made a name for himself in the business world, Fernandes never forgot his roots and was ever mindful of his Portuguese heritage.
He was the founding president of the Portuguese American Federation and served as chairman of the Portuguese Cultural Foundation. He was named honorary president of the Portuguese Cultural Union and was a member of the Portuguese Heritage Foundation.
He served on the Committee of the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament in New Bedford multiple times.
A close friend of Cardinal Humberto Sousa Medeiros, he was actively involved in fundraising on this side of the Atlantic for the development of the Catholic University of Portugal.
He also served as president of the Portuguese Times newspaper and the Portuguese Cable channel and was instrumental in developing the television program “Portuguese Around Us,” which aired on WTEV in New Bedford.
He was the first Madeiran Communities’ Councilor of the Madeira’s Regional Government in the United States.
During many years, he gave continuity to the Feast of Loreto once celebrated in Norton, which aimed to raise funds to be sent to his hometown in Madeira to finance the local religious festival with the same denomination.
He was the recipient of the Peter Francisco Award in 1966. He was awarded the Order of Prince Henry by Portugal’s President Américo Tomás in 1970. He was also the recipient of the Prince Henry Society’s Man of the Year in 1995.
Remembered for his philanthropy and civic engagement
During the ceremony at the museum, Eugénio Perregil, the president of the Studies and Development, Education, Culture and Social Center in Calheta, Madeira, stressed how Fernandes’ philanthropic and civic engagement ranged from the local to the national and international level.
“We need more people like Joseph Fernandes,” said Perregil, who co-wrote the recently released book “From Arco da Calheta to the United States of America: Tribute to Joseph Fernandes” with Duarte Mendonça.
The bilingual tribute book not only includes biographical data and photos, but also a series of testimonials from prominent figures praising Fernandes and his legacy.
“We need to keep his memory alive for future generations,” said Perregil, who along with Mendonça and Teixeira have delineated a commemorative program to mark Fernandes’ 100th birth anniversary, which included naming a square after him in his native Madeira.
Citing the former president of the Regional Government of Madeira Alberto João Jardim, Perregil said that “Joseph Fernandes is a figure of the History of Madeira and of the Epopee of the Portuguese emigration.”
In the book, the authors point out how Fernandes was a “man of multiple predicates, for his brilliant life path” and well-deserving of “all the compliments by all those who met him and knew him in life.”
Fernandes was chairman of the Norton School Committee, chairman of the Norton Historical Commission and a member of the town’s Industrial Commission.
He also served as president of the Bristol County Development Council and director of the U.S.S. Massachusetts Memorial Committee.
A lifelong Republican, he ran unsuccessfully for Massachusetts State Treasurer in 1964.
He was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to be a special consultant for the State Department’s Alliance for Progress at Puente Del Este, Uruguay.
He was awarded the Bicentennial Salute to Leadership Award in 1976 by Secretary of Treasury William Simon; the Leadership Award led by President Gerald R. Ford; and received the Prime Minister’s Award Medal from the State of Israel.
He was bestowed the honor of Knight of St. Gregory the Great by Pope John XXIII in 1961 and was named Man of the Year in 1964 by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. In 2000, he was elected to the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher by Pope John Paul II.
In the tribute book, it is also revealed that President Ford almost appointed Fernandes as U.S. Ambassador to Portugal but due to political strategy Frank Carlucci was chosen instead.
The book includes photos kindly provided by Fernandes’ daughter Márcia Fernandes and Judith Farrar, head of the Archives and Special Collections in the Claire T. Carney Library at UMass Dartmouth. In addition to family photos, there are images of Fernandes with President Richard Nixon, President Gerald Ford, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, President Bill Clinton, Senator Edward Kennedy and other U.S. and Portuguese high-profile figures.
Duarte revealed there are transcripts from Fernandes meeting with President Ford in the Oval Office discussing the situation in Portugal at a time when it was feared that Communists would gain full control of the country and precipitate similar takeovers in Spain.
“Joe was instrumental behind the scenes. No one knew about how he helped solve that little problem,” quipped Duarte.
In turn, Teixeira recalled how Fernandes was selected to represent the United States at the funeral of Portugal’s Prime Minister Francisco Sá Carneiro, who died in a plane crash in 1980.
“They sent Air Force One to Boston to pick him up and then to Lisbon,” Teixeira said. “Can you imagine the kind of person he was to be able to do this… only a great one,” he said.
Lurdes C. da Silva may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more stories about the Portuguese-speaking community, in English and Portuguese, please visit ojornal.com.