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Ernestina restoration nearing completion

Historic vessel will soon return to Boston

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1990 and has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Ernestina restoration nearing completion

Investor and philanthropist Bob Hildreth first set eyes on the Ernestina-Morrissey 20 years ago when it was docked in Boston Harbor. The schooner, now 127 years old, served as an educational vessel for the Commonwealth, taking groups of students from Boston to Gloucester to New Bedford, with occasional trips as far as Cape Verde, the island nation where the ship spent much of its working life.

For decades during the 20th century, the Ernestina transported goods from New Bedford to the islands and back and brought generations of Cape Verdeans to Massachusetts to work. In 1982, the Cape Verdean government gifted the Ernestina-Morrissey to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Badly in need of repair, the schooner was taken out of service in 2004.


“We’ve been trying to repair it ever since,” Hildreth said.

While state officials at one point proposed converting the Ernestina-Morrissey into a land-based museum, Hildreth and other investors began a fundraising effort.

Over the last 16 years, Hildreth, along with the late philanthropist Gerry Lenfest and others have put more than $10 million into the restoration of the Ernestina-Morrissey and secured $2 million in state funds for the work, currently being carried out at the Bristol Marine shipyard in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.

The schooner was christened the Effie M. Morrissey when it was built in 1894 as a fishing vessel. It spent 11 years fishing out of Gloucester before it was sold to fishing captains in Nova Scotia and then Newfoundland. In 1925, the ship was outfitted with a diesel engine and had its hull reinforced for Arctic exploration, an assignment the ship continued into the Second World War under the U.S. government.

In the late 1940s, the schooner was purchased by Captain Louisa Mendes, who rechristened the ship Ernestina, after his daughter. It was during that time that Cape Verdeans in Boston and New Bedford depended on the ship as the main means of sending food and clothing to the nine-island archipelago, and those in Cape Verde used the ship for transport to the U.S., where many were employed in cranberry bogs in the South Coast area of Massachusetts.

“It’s hugely significant for the Cape Verdean community,” said state Rep. Liz Miranda, whose great grandfather and other relatives relied on the ship for transport to the U.S. from the West African islands.

When its restoration is completed this fall, the ship will serve as a training vessel for the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. During the summer months it will serve as an educational vessel, providing high school and college students with lessons in maritime history. The schooner has 36 berths, showers and a kitchen.

Miranda says the ship, the last sail-powered ship to bring immigrants to the United States,  also provides a vital link to the region’s history of Cape Verdean immigration.

“It can be a tool for teaching how Africans contributed to our state’s history,” she said.

But before the double-masted ship sails out of Maine, it needs the actual sails it will rely on — $50,000 worth of woven polyester cloth — plus the rigging to keep the sails in place. The Ernestina Sailing Forward Committee is seeking small donations from the local Cape Verdean community, much in the same way schoolchildren across the U.S. contributed pennies to the restoration of the USS Constitution tall ship in the 1920s, raising more than $150,000 to rebuild the warship.

cape verde, Ernestina
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