From the Archives: Barbados and the parish of St Francis of Assisi

POST BY RSomerset

St Patrick's Cathedral, Barbados

On 28 July 2020 the parish of St Francis of Assisi in Barbados was handed over to the local diocese after Michael Barrow SJ celebrated his final Mass there. This seems like a good opportunity to reflect a little on the British Jesuits history on that island after 163 years of their involvement.

Although the Jesuits in Britain Archives have a bound volume of mission papers containing letters, financial and spiritual accounts and articles from the Bajan and Missionary Magazine on the history and culture of Barbados for the period 1858-2000 there is sadly little other material to be found and no direct material about the parish of St Francis of Assisi itself.

The earliest record of British Jesuit involvement in the island of Barbados is in the 1630s, when Fr Andrew White SJ (1579-1656) came to the Island on his way to Maryland. He was accompanied by two other Jesuit priests and a lay brother.  While there he witnessed a riot amongst the indentured servants at the port which his ship had put in.  In the 1630s people who were imprisoned in England for political or religious reasons were frequently banished to the West Indies under sentence of slavery for a certain number of years. 

Andrew White found the cost of living in Barbados high.  He complained:

‘Nothing could be had but it cost us our eies: a pig six weeks old was £5 sterling, a turke 50s, and a chicken at 6s.’  Despite this he did enjoy the tropical fruit available – writing to the Father General of the Society he said ‘I wish I could send with this letter just one pineapple for your Paternity, for nothing but the fruit itself is adequate to the task of showing worthily what it is’ [Extracts from Foley 3,348]

Despite this early Jesuit presence in Barbados, the real Jesuit history of the island starts in 1857, when the Vicariate of British Guiana and Barbados was entrusted to the British Province of the Society of Jesus.  Fr James Etheridge SJ (1808-1877) became Vicar Apostolic, and Fr Henry Seagrave SJ (sometimes spelled Segrave; 1806-1869) was appointed to Barbados. Fr Seagrave stayed for four years, leaving in 1861, with the mission said to be in excellent condition.  There were only about 50 Catholics on the island, despite a population of about 150,000, but by 1885 this number had increased to 800 and a Catholic elementary school had been established, thanks to 35 years of good governance by successive Jesuit priests.

In 1892, Fr William Strickland SJ (1819-1901) established a Convent of Sisters of Mercy.  He built the Convent next to the parish Church and closely supervised its building, acting as architect, contractor and clerk of the works.  The Sisters arrived as soon as the building was ready and started a Secondary School for Girls, taking over Fr Strickland’s already established Elementary School for Boys and Girls.  However three years later the Sisters of Mercy were transferred to British Guiana and their place and work were taken over by Ursuline Nuns.  The school did well and continues to flourish today.

Fr Strickland was assisted by Fr John Errington SJ (1847-1925) and Fr Thomas Barker SJ (1845-1905) in his later years.  When he finally left Barbados in 1895 he was replaced as superior by Fr Barker.   In 1894 Fr Errington had written home to England ‘ The Church here is a neat Gothic building in stone, and seats four hundred.  St Patrick looks out over the town and bay from a niche in the bell tower’.  However, St Patrick was not to enjoy his view for long because on 13 June 1897, the church was broken into by a thief who set fire to it.  The church was completely destroyed.  Fr Barker could not cope with the strain and was replaced by Fr Patrick Hogan SJ (1846-1904) who at once began rebuilding the church, putting much energy into fundraising and overseeing the works.  The Italian architect, Mr Castellani, had previously been a Jesuit lay brother.  The new church, in early gothic style and seating 800 was opened just 2 years after the old one was burned, with a blessing held on St Patrick’s day 1899.

Fr Hogan returned to Guiana in 1899, and was soon replaced by the similarly energetic Fr Clement Barraud SJ (1843-1926) who quickly repaid the little remaining debt on the church and set about beautifying the interior of the church with tessellated floors and stained glass in the windows and a set of Stations of the Cross.  In 1900 the St Vincent de Paul Society was established at St Patrick’s.  During Fr Barraud’s time a Grammar School for Boys was started, but unlike the Girls’ school, this did not flourish.

Because Barbados enjoys such a perfect climate, the Jesuit outpost there was often used as a Sanatorium for the British Guiana Vicariate.  Elderly Jesuits were sent to Barbados after years of labour in the Guiana Mission field, or else younger Jesuits whose health had failed.  Many did not stay for very long.  Because of this, few attempts were made to evangelise to the largely Protestant population, instead efforts were concentrated on the existing Catholics. 

An exception to this pattern was Fr John Besant SJ (1859-1944), who came to Barbados in 1917 and stayed there until his death in 1944.  He did much for Catholicism in Barbados.  He was a convert and had been an Anglican parson.  He was a champion of faith and morals in pulpit and press.  He was an excellent preacher and a great controversialist, making use of the secular press for Catholic propaganda.  He led the opposition in the island to the introduction of Divorce Laws by politicians.  Fr Besant was a popular figure in the life of the island, being a keen golfer and yachtsman and even designed yachts and fishing boats and worked out handicaps for sailing races, acting as both starter and judge.  In his obituary Fr Francis Mayo SJ (1870-1954) wrote of him “His hospitality was well known and visitors always found a warm welcome. More than once he took in as guests people who had come to Barbados in the hope of finding work and were stranded there…he was a keen sportsman and an energetic member of the Barbados Yacht Club. He seems to have mixed much in the society in the island, known everywhere for ‘his gentle, cheerful and affectionate manner’”.

In the 1950s there was an ecclesiastic reorganisation, and the Vicarate Apostolic which had consisted of Barbados and British Guiana became two separate dioceses.  The Jesuits retained just one parish in Barbados, St Francis of Assisi on the west coast, with the rest of the island being the responsibility of the Dominicans.  Fr Thomas Pearson SJ (1906-1983), who had previously been in Guiana since 1939, oversaw the transition.  He acquired a disused cinema, the Gaiety, and converted it into a church.  In the former car park for the cinema he built a Presbytery for the church which also acted as a holiday house for visiting Jesuits from the Guyana mission.  It was named Besant House, in honour of Fr John Besant and was opened in 1960. 

In the 1960s there was a high turnover of Jesuit priests. Fr Archibald Prime SJ (1909-1994) returned to the parish (having been priest there in 1965) in 1970 and stayed for 10 years.  A slightly eccentric man, he is remembered for his use of visual aids including a large clown puppet in his sermons.  The congregation grew during the 1970s, swelled by an influx of canefield workers from the Island of St Lucia, which was predominantly Catholic.  They mainly spoke French and Patois so Fr Prime’s puppet may have been very helpful to illustrate his sermons and make the newcomers welcome.  Fr Prime also replaced the organ, and organised a choir and Sunday School classes, both of which flourished.

The parish was served by further British Jesuits, the last being Fr Michael Barrow SJ, who began his mission there in 2012.

If you are interested in the history of the British Jesuits in Barbados, or any other material held by the Jesuits in Britain Archives then please contact us.

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