The Jesuits in Guyana
Early Church History in Guyana

March 1857 marked the beginning of an organized mission by The Society of Jesus in British Guiana with the arrival of James Etheridge, SJ and two Italian companions, Aloysius Emiliani from the Roman Province, and Fr Clement Negri from Naples. Six more Jesuits arrived 8 months later in November. They were James Jones, Frederick de Betham, Henry Segrave and Peter Sherlock from the English Province; another Italian, Joseph Pavarelli and a Maltese, Benedict Schembri. Segrave was soon posted off to pastoral duties in Barbados, also under the care of the Guiana Mission. Sadly, it was not long before Sherlock was also on the move; in his case it was ill-health that prompted his return to England.

The Jesuit constitutions forbid Jesuits to be appointed bishops. Only in exceptional circumstances for urgent pastoral reasons and at the direct request of the Pope, can this provision be set aside. The early years of the Guiana mission were, however, a clear example of just such circumstances so in 1858 James Etheridge returned to England to be consecrated Bishop by Cardinal Wiseman in Farm Street Church on 17th October. The presence of Bishop John Hynes at this mass fittingly expressed the handing on of the care of the flock from one worthy shepherd to his successor. Bishop Hynes and his 4 exhausted priests had withdrawn from Guiana in 1857 following Etheridges’ arrival. Sole responsibility for the Church now rested with the newly consecrated Vicar Apostolic and his small band of Jesuit companions.

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As if British Guiana did not present enough challenges, Bishop Etheridge soon found himself caught up in pastoral activities beyond the frontiers of his growing mission. The resignation of Archbishop Spaccapietra of Port-of-Spain left this important neighboring diocese in need of an administrator, Etheridge was asked to step into the breach, until a suitable permanent replacement could be found. In addition, the Pope later asked him to act as Apostolic delegate to Haiti. Such activates outside of Guiana occupied Etheridge till November 1861 when, struck down with fever, he had to return to England for 5 months convalescence.

One of the greatest challenges and at the same time greatest strengths of the Catholic Church has always been its desire to be authentically Catholic; creating a truly universal community united in fellowship and service yet respecting differences of culture and background. The Church in the time of Peter and Paul had to wrestle with the question of how Jew and Gentle could become one in Christ. The situation facing Etheridge was to proclaim the gospel of God’s love in a country whose population was made up of indigenous Amerindians, recently emancipated African slaves, the European colonialists who had enslaved them, and ever increasing numbers of arriving indentured labourers from a variety of countries.

Among the indentured labourers, there were, of course, the Portuguese from the island of Madeira. These had arrived already steeped in Catholic faith and tradition and while their practice of their religion might leave much to be desired, they still clung to it with a fierce pride. Soon after their arrival they had started looking for alternatives to the hard labour of the cane fields and within a short time many had become overseers, farmers, hucksters, merchants and shop keepers. To replace them on the sugar estates, at the suggestion of John Gladstone, the father of a future British Prime Minister, the English colonists had turned to another corner of the British Empire: the Indian sub-continent. On 5 May 1838, the Hesperus and the Whitby docked in Georgetown with the first consignment of “East Indians”. By the time the Indian government forbad any further emigration to Guiana in 1917, over 240,000 people had made the crossing. 80% of these East Indians were Hindus with 15% being Muslim.

The Italian and Maltese Jesuits who arrived with Etheridge had been picked specifically with the needs of the Portuguese community in mind. In a short time they mastered the Portuguese language and began intensive work among the Catholics from Madeira. They preached sermons in Portuguese and introduced Portuguese hymns and devotions that had been familiar to their congregations back in Madeira. More importantly they were able to visit and converse freely with Portuguese families in their homes, listening to their concerns and encouraging them in their faith. Such pastoral care paid dividends and soon the congregation attending the one Catholic Church on Brickdam became far too large for the small building. A plot of land was purchased in Main Street through the help of a wealthy Portuguese businessman Manuel Fernandez and a new church dedicated to the Sacred Heart was built. The Christmas midnight mass of 1861, celebrated by Fr Benedict Schembri, provided a fiting moment to mark the official opening of the new church, though its solemn blessing had to wait until 22 June 1862 when Bishop Etheridge had returned from his convalescence.

Under the “padroado” system, initially Sacred Heart operated as “the Portuguese Church” being the centre of pastoral activities for the Portuguese community throughout Guiana. Only in 1932 was this status revised and Sacred Heart constituted as a normal parish. The indefatigable Schembri established guilds and charitable associations, organized religious and cultural events and generally strengthened the bonds of fellowship and faith among the Portuguese. Of particular note was the introduction of the Christmas Novena, with a 3;00 am mass on each of the 9 mornings before Christmas. This practice rapidly became a popular and enduring feature of Catholic churches throughout Guiana. Even the “Bemdita Sajaes” a hymn to Our Lady with words in the Madieran dialect of Portuguese became a much loved feature of many an African and East Indian family Christmas.

As is the way, such success did not come without its price and Schembri aroused antagonisms and even hostility not only from anti-Catholic sections of Guyanese society but even from elements within the Church. On 23 June 1865 he left Guiana in the company of Bishop Etheridge to meet with the General of the Jesuits in Rome who reassigned him to work in Brazil. His place at Sacred Heart was taken by Joseph Baldini, one of a number of Jesuits who had joined the Guiana mission in1860.

In October 1874, Fr Schembri returned to British Guiana and after a period working at the newly built cathedral, moved to Meadowbank where there was also a large Portuguese community. Here he built another new Church which was opened by the bishop on 12 December 1876. The patroness chosen was Our Lady of the Mount, the patroness of Madeira.

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The years that Schembri had been absent from Guiana had seen the building of a magnificent Cathedral on Brickdam. The foundation stone for this had been laid on 21 April 1868, and over the next 6 years an impressive Decorated Gothic structure, built entirely of greenheart and crabwood had risen on Brickdam to dominate the Georgetown skyline. The Archbishop of Caracas presided over the opening on 30th August 1874, at which the recently appointed bishop of Trinidad, Bishop O’Carroll said the Mass and preached. Sadly Bishop Etheridge himself – the man responsible for the construction was unable to attend, once again confined to bed with fever.

The dedication of such a magnificent Cathedral serves as a reminder that success in the Guiana mission was not restricted to the activities of the Italian priests among the Portuguese. English priests developed a ministry among former African slaves that found a good response. The church in New Amsterdam served as a base for work throughout Berbice, while centres at Abram’s Zuil and Henrietta served a similar purpose in Essiquibo. Education soon became a priority and on 1 May 1866 a Catholic Grammar school for boys was opened in the presbytery on Brickdam. Fr Theobald Langton was placed in charge but died of yellow fever just three months later. His place was briefly taken by Fr Stephen Bond then in October a Jamaican born Jesuit, Fr Charles Kennedy Wilson, assumed charge. The school underwent several changes in headmaster and also in location until it was eventually closed for a period around 1878. On the express orders of the Jesuit General it was reopened in 1880 and Fr Barraud was appointed headmaster. He was to hold the post for 20 years and to see the attendance rise from 27 pupils to 72. On 13th November 1907 this Catholic grammar school was given the name that was to quickly become synonymous with the highest standards of education; St Stanislaus College.

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One significant group of Catholics that presented particular challenges was the Arawak Amerindians in the Moruca area. This community had always been especially dear to Bishop John Hynes and from 1840 until 1853 it had been well served by a much loved and respected resident Irish priest, Fr John Cullen. With Moruca as his base, this intrepid missionary had made numerous visits to outlying villages even as far as the Orinoco. Under his direction a new church had been built in Moruca which was solemnly dedicated and opened by Bishop Hynes on 27 October 1844. The saint selected as patroness for this church was St Rose of Lima. From that day to the present Catholics have referred to the Moruca community as “Santa Rosa”. It is worth recording that in 1847 when the poor of Ireland were suffering the ravages of the potato famine, the Amerindian Catholics of Santa Rosa took up a collection on their behalf, sending $ 44.88 to the Irish and Scotch Relief Society

On Cullen’s retirement through ill health in 1853 no resident replacement could be found. For a while the community received periodic visits from Fr. Francis Hayden and Fr. Joseph Fitzgerald, OP based at Abram’s Zuil on the Essequibo coast. When Etheridge arrived in 1857 he initially sent Benedict Schembri to Santa Rosa. Schembri arrived in December 1857 to find the church and presbytery in poor repair. He stayed less than a month before returning to Georgetown. Fr de Bentham, based at Abram’s Zuil took on the care of the Moruca community, continuing the practice of making periodic visits. Negri, Baldini, Casano and Mesini all of whom were at various times based at Abram’s Zuil, continued these visits to Santa Rosa. In November 1876 Marco Mesini began was able to increase the frequency of these visits to Santa Rosa and in 1878 built a new church there. When Fr Thomas Barker arrived to take over Abram’s Zuil in 1888 Marco Mesini was finally free to move permanently to Santa Rosa which had struggled for 35 years without a resident priest.

James Etheridge did not live to see the new church built in Santa Rosa. After celebrating mass on Christmas morning 1877 he set sail for Barbados to visit Fr Bodoano who was sick at the time. His intention was to spend a day and then take the return steamer. He arrived as planned on the evening of the 29th and then departed the following evening. Since the mass at Christmas he had been feeling unwell and on the evening of 31st December while the ship was still at sea he died. His body was committed to the deep in the early hours of new years day, 1878.

The man chosen to replace Etheridge was Anthony Butler, SJ a former soldier with the Royal Irish Fusiliers who was serving as a Jesuit in Jamaica, also a mission of the English province at the time. On 26th August 1878 in a packed Georgetown Cathedral Anthony Butler was consecrated Bishop, becoming the third Vicar Apostolic for British Guiana. Bishop Butler’s army background was to prove of great use to him. As a soldier he had seen service in India and learned to speak Hindi. This greatly facilitated his contact with the rapidly growing East Indian community. He quickly won the respect and affection of all sections of society, gaining a reputation as “one of the most popular men in town”. He was a tireless worker for any cause that furthered the living standards of the poor. Many families owed the ownership of their small plots of land to revisions made to the Crown Land Regulations in 1898, due in no small measure to Bishop Butler’s campaigning.

While still based in Jamaica Anthony Butler had got to know a young Jamaican John Purcell. He was received into the Catholic Church and after Butler’s appointment as Bishop he wrote asking for a job as a teacher in Guinea. Butler was happy to employ him at the Cathedral school. With the help of the Bishop, Purcell acquired sufficient knowledge of Latin for priestly studies and was granted a place at the Urban College in Rome. Following his ordination he returned to Guiana in 1890, becoming the first secular priest to join the Mission. After a brief posting to Morawhanna, he became the first resident priest in Buxton in 1892. After short ministries in various locations he eventually settled in Victoria in 1904 where he became renowned as a great defender of the Catholic faith both from the pulpit and in the press, becoming the second editor of a monthly magazine known as the Catholic Standard founded in 1905 by Fr Charles Cooksey.

Fr William Strickland, SJ, was also to make a significant contribution to the life of the Church in Guiana, though he himself spent less than a month in the country. Strickland arrived in Barbados in 1883 and was to work there for the next 12 years. During the whole of that period he only paid one three week visit to his Jesuit brothers in Guiana. His contribution to Guiana began by arranging for two sisters of Mercy to come from England in 1892 to establish a school on Barbados. The two, Sr Ursula Green and Sr Cecilia Chambers were soon joined by a postulant, Miss Gloria de Freitas a former pupil of the Ursuline sisters in Guiana.

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In April 1894, all three moved to Guiana to establish the first Mercy Convent in Charlestown, while the running of their school in Barbados was handed over to Ursulines from Guiana. The three founding sisters were soon joined by more from England. A year later in 1895, Gloria de Freitas, now with the religious name of Sr Pauline opened a school in Main Street. The Mercy sisters followed this venture with another school, St Joseph’s High opened in 1897. Among the first pupils to attend this school was Eugenie Fernandes. She would go on to enter the Mercy sisters herself and as Sr Mary Gabriel return as headmistress to St Joseph’s in 1920, fulfilling this role most ably for the next 33 years.

The year after the arrival of the Mercy sisters saw a very significant step forward for the Guyanese church. In 1897 Fr John Victorine was ordained after his studies at the Urban College in Rome and returned to Guiana as its first native born secular priest. He was to serve the Catholic Church in the land of his birth with great distinction for the next 50 years, first at Sacred Heart Main Street and then later as parish priest in New Amsterdam.

In 1898, Mesini requested the help of the Mercy Sisters to run a boarding school he had established for both boys and girls at Santa Rosa. Having the children live at Santa Rosa was essential since they came from scattered communities over a wide area. On 27 August 1998, Sr Stanislaus Farley, Sr Veronica and Sr Cecilia arrived after a long and difficult journey from Georgetown and set to work with great energy.

On 13 December that same year Fr Henry Beauclark a Jesuit who had spent the last 6 years working in Jamaica arrived to replace Fr Mesini who, after 30 long and difficult years of service to the Guiana mission, retired to his native Mantua where he died on 15 November 1903.

In January 1900, the Guiana Mission received its first visit from the Jesuit Provincial from England, Fr John Gerard SJ. Up to his arrival Bishop Butler, had exercised the dual roles of Vicar Apostolic responsible for the whole Church in Guiana and at the same time Mission Superior with the particular care of the Jesuit community. With the Church rapidly growing and diversifying, the Provincial saw the need to distinguish these roles and appointed Compton Theaodore Galton as the first superior. He was not to occupy this position long since on 25 August 1901, Bishop Butler died and Galton himself was named the next Apostolic Vicar. Henry Beauclerk moved back from Santa Rosa where he had been exercising a very fruitful ministry to replace Galton as the Mission Superior.

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A notable addition to the staff of the Mission in 1904 was Fr Cuthbert Cary-Elwes, SJ, aged 37. After his ordination at Farm Street in 1900 he had begun a very successful apostolate giving parish Missions. He offered his services to Bishop Galton who was happy to accept and the result were several astonishingly successful missions. Cary-Elwes also took charge of the Cathedral choir with similar success. In 1906 Cary-Elwes moved to the North West District where a strong Catholic presence had been established by Fr Fred Smith and later developed by Fr Silvin Gillet. In The North West Cary-Elwes was to gain invaluable experience for what was to be his chief contribution to the Guiana Mission: ministry among the Amerindian people.

In November 1909 it was Fr Cary-Elwes who set off with Bishop Galton to make the long and hazardous journey to the Takutu River that formed the border between Guiana and Brazil, in order to establish a Catholic Mission to the people of the Rupununi and later the Pakaraimas. The site selected for the mission was in the village of Zariwa; a village that was soon to be better known as “St Ignatius” after the patron of the mission. From this base Cary-Elwes began the work of visiting the many scattered communities and introducing the Gospel to the Macushi and Wapishana people. This was a work he was to do for the next 13 years. In the end, broken in health by so many years of tireless labour Cary-Elwes had to be taken to Georgetown in May 1923. To his deep regret he was never able to return. His place was taken by Fr Henry Mather. However within a fortnight of his arrival at St Ignatius Mather collapsed and had to be take to Boa Vista for medical treatment. From here he journeyed to Manaus then up the Amazon to Belem and by sea via Trinidad back to Georgetown.

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While the establishing of the Rupununi Mission was one of the Church’s great success of the opening years of the twentieth century tragedy also marked these years for on 7th March 1913 a careless workman repairing the Cathedral roof allowed a fire to catch hold that in a matter of hours reduced the beautiful Gothic Cathedral, the presbytery and school buildings to smoldering ashes. On the Sunday after the fire a crowded meeting was held at the town hall convened by the Catholic mayor Francis Dias and a rebuilding committee was formed. Providentially Leonard Stokes, the President of the Royal Institute of British Architects happened to be in the West Indies at the time and was able to produce a new design to be constructed in ferro-concrete. On 15th August 1915 the foundation stone of this new building was laid by the Governor, Sir Walter Ergerton. Six years latter on 13th March 1921 the western half of this building was opened for worship and in 1925 the completed building was solemnly blessed.

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The First World War which devastated Europe hardly touched Guiana. One indirect effect though was in a reduction in manpower as no new recruits for the mission were available from Britain. Indeed at one point it looked like 5 Jesuits serving in Guiana might be moved to take up work in the Bombay Mission, where the deportation of German Jesuits had left a significant gap. The plan of Father General Ledochowski was for Jesuits from New Orleans to replace the men taken from Guiana. As things turned out, Bombay eventually got replacements from the Aragon Province But the suggestion of making men from New Orleans available for Guiana gave the British provincial the idea of moving some of his men from the Guiana mission to the Zambesi which was expanding rapidly at this time. In March 1916 Fr Stanislaus Gillow, SJ arrived from New Orleans and was later joined by two other Americans. However all three returned to the United States at the end of the war and the idea of help from the New Orleans province was abandoned.

On 10th April 1931, Bishop Galton died at the age of 76 having served in British Guiana for 35 years and been honoured by the British Government with a C.B.E. His place as Apostolic Vicar was taken by George Weld who had been serving on the mission since 1922 and at the time of his appointment as Vicar Apostolic he had been headmaster of St Stanislaus College for seven years. Weld was consecrated Bishop by Cardinal Bourne on 15th May 1932 and exercised this office for nearly 27 years retiring on 18th July 1954 at the age of 70. The man chosen to succeed him was Richard Lester Guilly who was to have the honour of becoming the first bishop of Georgetown when the church in Guiana finally graduated from being a mission territory in the care of an Apostolic Vicar to become a canonically established diocese on 29th February 1956. In 1966 the colony of British Guiana gained independence to become the Republic of Guyana and on 12 August 1972, as a fitting sign that the Catholic Church had been truly planted in Guyanese soil, Bishop Benedict Singh, a Guyanese diocesan priest took over from Bishop Guilly as bishop of Georgetown.