The Jesuits in Guyana
Guyana Early History

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In 1498 on his third voyage of discovery to the “New World” Christopher Columbus sighted the coastland of what today is Guyana. However it was not until 1531, with the arrival of an expedition lead by the Spaniard Diego de Ordaz, that Europeans actually set foot on Guyanese soil. The Europeans gave the name Guiana to the entire land that lay between the Amazon and the Orinoco. Today, it is divided into the Brazilian state of Amapa, the French Overseas Department of Guyane, the now independent former Dutch colony of Suriname, the Co-operative Republic of Guyana and the Venezuelan province of Guayana: testimony to a long history of colonial struggle between Portugal, Spain, France, Holland and England.

Initial interest in this region was stimulated by rumours of a fabulous golden city, El Doradao located, so the stories went in “that mighty, rich, and beautiful empire of Guiana”. In 1595 Sir Walter Raleigh came to Guiana in search of El Dorado. Significantly he reports the Spanish governor of Trinidad, Don Antonio Berreo as saying that the indigenous leaders “of all the borders of Guiana had decreed that none of them should trade with any Christian for gold because the same would be their overthrow, and that for the love of gold the Christians meant to conquer and dispossess them of all together”.

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For the indigenous people of South America “Christian” was therefore initially synonymous with “conquistador”; an empty label used by those whose avarice and cruelty contradicted any claim they might make to speak or act in the name of a crucified Lord. Yet it would be an injustice to dismiss the evangelization of the New World as merely European colonialism by another name: the cross and the sword united in the domination of the indigenous population. Amidst the “conquistadors” there were still true missionaries: those who knew that the evangelization of the indigenous people was inseparable from the vigorous defence of their human dignity against exploitation by European colonizers.

Early French Jesuits arrived in what is now Cayenne in 1666, coming from the well-established mission on Martinique. They had considerable success establishing settlements for the indigenous people after the pattern of the Paraguay Reductions. In 1712 Fr Aime Lombard, SJ established a school here with the farsighted vision of forming indigenous catechists to minister to their own people. By 1762 there were 14 Jesuits in Cayenne, including the Irishman Fr Philip O’Reilly, SJ who won the trust and friendship of those to whom he wished to preach by first playing the flute and joining them in their festivals and celebrations. Such promising beginnings were however cut short in July 1763, when French colonists expelled all the Jesuits from Cayenne, anticipating the worldwide suppression of the Society that was to come in 1773.

A few years prior to the arrival of the Jesuits in Cayenne another member of the Martinique mission, Fr Denis Meland, SJ made a visit to Spanish Guiana. He wrote enthusiastically to the General of the Society in 1652, talking of his efforts to learn the Carib language and in this way hoping to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel in “the wide lands of Guiana that stretch 300 leagues and more, from the River Aquarabis to the River Amazon”. These hopes sadly were not to be realized and Meland had to return to Martinique. However he returned the next year with Fr Piere Pelleprat, SJ who was similarly moved by the opportunities this new land presented for missionary work, writing in 1654, “it is sad to think that on these 400 leagues of coast ... and in those almost infinite lands that stretch from north to south, there is no priest or religious to teach the faith to the countless multitude of peoples who live there.”

The Jesuits however failed to establish a mission in the Orinoco area comparable to the one in Cayenne. A serious mission to this area had to await the end of the turmoil caused by the war of Spanish Succession that raged not only in Europe but also in the Caribbean from 1702 to 1720. In 1726 Spanish Capuchins were finally able to establish a permanent presence among the indigenous people of Guiana. Their mission, in what is now Venezuela, proved to be of great benefit to the people. On one level, it introduced cattle rearing as a way of securing a regular source of meat. More importantly, it provided a place of protection for the Arawaks and Waraus from the constant danger of raids by Caribs looking for slaves to sell to Dutch settlers in the Essequibo area.

This work of the Capuchins in “Spanish Guayana” was however brought to an abrupt end on 3rd May 1817 when 26 priests and 2 lay brothers were murdered by revolutionary troops fighting for Simon Bolivar in his campaign to win independence from Spanish rule for the South American colonies. Around 500 Arawak Amerindians from the Capuchin missions fled and established a settlement on the left bank of the Moruka River, 26 miles from the sea. In 1822, the Former Royal Naval officer Mr. William Hilhouse, acting in his capacity as “Quarter Master General of Indians in British Guiana, made contact with this group and was impressed by their “high standard of civilization, their morality and their industry”. Though an Anglican himself, Hilhouse supported the appeal the Moruka Arawaks made to the British Governor, to procure a Catholic priest to minister to them.
Prior to the arrival of this significant group of Amerindian Catholics, while little progress had been made, Catholic missionaries had, never the less, not been absent from this part of the Lord’s vineyard. Between 1683 and 1686 three Franciscan priests and a brother had begun tentative efforts to introduce the Catholic faith into the Corentyne. Since this area was at that time a Dutch colony, they met with little success and were forbidden to work with either the local indigenous people or the African slaves. Two died within a year. The third priest, an English man named Thomas Fuller, lived for two and a half years but on his death the surviving member of the mission returned to Holland. Later, in 1769, an English Jesuit named James Chamberlain ventured into the county of Demerara, this too was a Dutch possession at that time. He laboured for ten years before being replaced by Leonard Neale. Neale had been born in Maryland, yet had entered the Jesuits in Europe after his schooling at St Omers. Following the suppression of the Society in 1773, he worked for a time as a priest in England before coming to Demerara in 1779. Discouraged by his lack of success he left in 1783 to return to Maryland. Here he went on to great things, becoming president of Georgetown college and later second archbishop of Baltimore. Legend has it that he baptized George Washington on his death bed.

In 1803 the colonies of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice past from Dutch to British rule and in 1805 a young Englishman Charles Waterton arrived to take care of the coffee and sugar plantations owned by his uncle. Waterton’s early education at Stonyhurst had made him not only a devote Catholic but also a keen naturalist. He became famous for his travels into the interior of Guyana, observing and recording its wildlife. His book “Waterton's Wanderings in South America” met with great success and inspired the young Charles Darwin. At the same time he desired to do what he could to arouse the concern of Church officials in Rome to the condition of “the many Catholics who reside in the Colony, and had not seen a priest there for many years”.

In 1805 Waterton himself made arrangements for a priest, an “émigré” from the French Revolution, Abbe du Bos to come to Demerara but he was unable to settle and soon returned to England. In 1817 Waterton wrote at length to Cardinal Litta, the Prefect of Propaganda Fide, reporting on the sad state of the Church throughout the region. In the French colony of Cayenne he found only “a Portuguese priest to attend the military and a French priest for the inhabitants of the town of Cayenne and the widely dispersed colonies...”. In Dutch Suriname, “no priest was there, and I believe there never had been one. I traveled through the interior of Suriname until I reached the River Coruntin, and could find no trace of the Catholic religion among the Indians or the Negroes”.
If the Church’s presence in the Guianas was minimal, at least there were signs of promising growth on the islands of the Caribbean. On 6th March 1819, the island of Trinidad took one step nearer becoming a diocese when James Buckley was appointed its first Vicar Apostolic and began work in Port of Spain. Not only Trinidad, but the whole of the English and Dutch Caribbean came under his pastoral mandate. The Guianas, therefore, became his responsibility. Buckley did not waste any opportunity to try to recuit priests for his extensive mission. In 1825 while in Europe he met the Provincial of the Irish Dominicans who agreed to make available a young priest Fr John Hynes, OP for the demanding work in British Guiana. On 19th September 1826 Hynes arrived along with a fellow priest Denis O’Callaghan to begin the first systematic attempts to lay the foundations of the Catholic Church in Guyana. Hynes laboured for eight years under very difficult circumstances, returning to Europe in 1834.

When the Arawak Amerindians of Moruca made their appeal for a priest, Providence had provided John Hynes to respond. In a letter written to a Dominican friend on 6th June 1830 Hynes expressed his concern for all the indigenous people of Guiana, saying, “Since my arrival in the Colony I deeply lamented the condition of our much neglected Indian population and sincerely wished to have the power and means of conveying to them the blessings of religion” . He went on to recount how the Arawaks, “Hearing that a priest was in the Colony sent a white man (Hilhouse) to me to say that they were Catholics, ever so long without any spiritual guide, and entreating me to afford them, if it be in my power, an occasional opportunity of assisting at the Divine Mysteries and getting their children baptised.” Hynes welcomed this invitaion with joy and made arrangements to visit Moruca, setting aside 15 days for the round trip from Georgetown. Hilhouse describes the historic encounter, “On the eve of the feast of Saint John (24th June 1830) Mr Hynes reached their settlement in the dark woods and was received by them with many demonstrations of joy and affection. Muskets were fired as he approached: and on his landing, men, women and children flocked to kiss his hand in token of respect. It being night, the forest was illuminated with wax lights of their own manufacture”. During a three day visit Hynes baptized 75 children and married two couples.

On his return to Georgetown Hynes did all he could to provide for the on going pastoral care of this Moruka community. A Spanish priest J. Espinal was sent but he lasted only a short time before returning to Trinidad. In July 1837, with Haynes already back in Europe, Fr Apollinaire Hermant, himself a refugee from Venezuela but now living in Trindad came to replace Espinal in Moruka. Hermat remained until 1840 giving loyal and dedicated service to the people and gaining a reputation as “a kind and good missionary who had done much good among them”. When Hermant moved to physically less demanding work in Martinique, his place was taken by the Irishman, Fr John Cullen who was to spend the next 13 years ministering to the people of Moruca and the North West.

In the same year that Hermat arrived in Moruca, John Hynes’ replacement arrived in Georgetown. As a testament to the solid foundations laid by John Hynes the priest who came, in 1837, William Clancy, was given the status of Vicar Apostolic. Born in Ireland, Clancy was working as a coadjutor Bishop in Charleston, South Carolina when he was asked to take on the work in Guiana. In 1844, John Hynes himself, now also consecrated bishop returned to Guiana to take over from Clancy as the second Vicar Apostolic for the mission.

Much had changed in the 10 years that Hynes had been away. The principal reason for this was an act of the British parliament in 1833 abolishing slavery. Ever since 1807 it had been illegal to trade in slaves but after 1st August 1834 it became illegal to own slaves. At the time of abolition, it is estimated that there were over 100,000 African slaves working on the sugar plantations of British Guiana. On gaining their freedom most slaves were understandably reluctant to work for their former masters and took to subsistence farming. By 1848 there were less than 20,000 Africans still on the plantations.

In search of a new workforce, plantation owners turned to the Portuguese island of Madeira, where the peasent farmers already had a tradition of sugar growing. Arrangements were made for a small advanced party of men to come in 1834, then on 3rd May 1835 the ship Louisa Baillie brought the first 40 “Portuguese” indentured workers to Guiana. By the end of that year a further 553 had arrived. In subsequent years workers also arrived from other places including Germany and Malta though the few who came were unable to adapt to the climate. The plantaion owners therefore concentrated their recruitment drive in Madeira. In 1841 over 4,000 Portuguese arrived. Workers began to return to Madeira to collect their wives and children and by the end of 1850, nearly 17,000 Portuguese had made the crossing to Guiana. Coming from a Catholic country this influx of Portuguese brought massive changes to the nature of the Catholic Church in Guiana.

Three years after his arrival Vicar Apostolic Bishop Hynes made arrangements for Ursuline sisters from his native Ireland to come to minister to the rapidly growing number of Catholics.

On 29th June 1847, six sisters and two postulants arrived from the Ursuline convent in Athlone, lead by their superior Sr. Mary Regis O’Brian OSU. Within a matter of months on 31st August 1847 they opened St Roses School for girls, starting with 4 students. By 1851 they had opened St Ann’s orphanage, and by 1852 one of the postulant Sr Mary Rose Tierney, OSU had died, aged just 25. In 1855 Sr Mary Regis also died to be succeeded as superior by Sr Mary Stanislaus Hearne, OSU; an office she was to hold for the next 24 years.

Successive attempts by Bishop Hynes to find priests to serve his rapidly expanding mission proved disappointing. One glimmer of hope came in 5th October 1845 when he ordained Joaquin Antonio Correa de Natividade whom he had brought from Lisbon. Portuguese Catholics were overjoyed to hear sermons preached in their own language. Their joy, however was short lived since Correa returned to Europe after only a brief and frustrating ministry. It seemed that the only way to secure a regular supply of dedicated men was to have the mission entrusted to a religious Order. Being a Dominican Bishop Hynes naturally first turned to his own but it could not promise the help he required. A request was then made by the Holy See to the General of the Jesuits, Fr Peter Beckx, SJ. The Guiana mission well suited a Society that had been found specifically to provide apostles where the needs were greatest, where there were not others to minister to these needs and where the more universal good might be found. The General therefore dutifully agreed, and assigned the enterprise to the English Province.

As superior for this new mission, the English Provincial selected James Etheridge, SJ a former pupil of Stonyhurst and at 48 a prominent member of the province. However since at the time there were only 140 priests in the English province, Etheridge’s two companions were Italians: Fr Aloysius Emiliani SJ from the Roman Province, and Fr Clement Negri, SJ from Naples. These, along with the other Italian Jesuits had been displaced by the political turmoil and persecution that accompanied Italian national unification. On 24th March 1857 in a ceremony at Meadow Bank Church a worn-out Bishop John Hynes, OP with his four exhausted priests handed over the care of the Church in Guiana to the three arriving missionaries. This marked the beginning of the “Jesuit” phase in British Guiana.