NEW BEDFORD - The "Consul of the People," known for her kind candor and approachable style, is leaving her post. But the friendships, memories and the special connection she made with the SouthCoast and vice-versa will remain.
New Bedford's Portuguese Consul Fernanda Coelho is returning to Portugal in August after completing her four-year post in the Whaling City.
Originally from the seafaring city of Póvoa de Varzim in northern Portugal, after serving for five years in the landlocked Portuguese Embassy in Brazil, she felt as if she had come home in New Bedford.
"Meeting the community solidified the belief that I hadn't come to the United States, but rather gone back to Portugal," said Coelho. "It's difficult not to feel comfortable here."
And her comfort level with the community grew as she initially began meeting with the community.
"I tried to make a serene and cautious approach because above all I wanted to respect the people and the history of the institutions that have been here for many years," said Coelho. "But there was such a great empathy, that I never felt reservations from anyone."
Fernando Garcia, businessman and recipient of the honor of the Prince Henry the Navigator, said that he shared the same sentiments that others do in the community, calling the consul the "most warm, caring, passionate person, both personally and professionally."
"It breaks my heart that she is leaving us. We have never had such a caring and loving relation with a public official," said Garcia. "She is brilliant - a true first class diplomat at heart - one that truly remembers her basic roots and the people and purposes that she is representing... the culture, traditions, the pride and everything that has to do with the Portuguese people in a foreign land."
"I get very emotional, I'm going to cry when she goes. The community has yet to realize the loss we are going to face," added Garcia.
João Pacheco, member of the Council for the Portuguese communities, an advisory board to the Portuguese government pertaining to immigration issues, said that the diplomat will leave her mark in the SouthCoast.
"She did an excellent job and is a woman who represented all social classes of our community," said Pacheco. "The relation that the community had with Portugal through her was excellent. What marked me the most was her simple personality. She was open to the community without any superiority complex. She was honest, steadfast and treated everyone equally."
Coelho said there where many events and emotions during her tenure, felt by her and her staff. From the possibility of the Portuguese foreign ministry closing the Consulate to various state visits,which included the Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva in 2007, to the tragedy of the Holy Ghost fire in Fall River and the loss of life of Portuguese fishermen.
She said that she felt a great deal of support from local political institutions at the time that the community needed it the most.
"The strongest sensation that I will take with me is that the community, which is well integrated, respects their cultural legacy a great deal and is very proud of its roots... it has definitely won the respect of American authorities," said Coelho.
New Bedford's State Representative Antonio F.D. Cabral said that she was someone who was wonderful and easy to work with.
"She really understands the community and really is out there to have the community respected and be represented at every level possible," said Coelho. "She is accessible to the community at large and has a good relationship with the various elected officials in the area and that is important."
Cong. Barney Frank's assistant Ines Gonçalves-Drolet, whose office is a block away from the Consulate, said that Coelho was "one of the most special consuls we had."
"She is very approachable and very dear to this community; we really hate to see her go," said Gonçalves-Drolet. "It's prestigious having the consulate in New Bedford, and its necessary because we have a huge Portuguese community here that still has a lot of ties to Portugal. It was really a pleasure seeing her represent Portugal the way she did."
Last night, Coelho and her husband Luís Bernardo took the opportunity to say good-bye to the community at a reception held at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, honoring the Director General for Consular Affairs and Portuguese Communities, Ambassador José Arsénio.
Coelho said that her replacement, Graça Fonseca, will achieve her first post as consul in New Bedford.
She added that it will be hard for her to forget the people she met here and that she will have a special connection with the region as her younger daughter was born here.
Her message to the community was to continue their dual effort of integration to the American society through active participation, while at the same time maintaining their immense pride and original cultural traditions.
"I sought to be as close as possible to the people, to listen, to observe and to relate to everyone," she said. "I tried to be at the same level of any Portuguese citizen or American that needed consular services. I tried to be as human as possible."
O Jornal, aqui, acedido em 15 de Junho de 2009.