THE CONTRIBUTION OF THE PORTUGUESE TO THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH IN TRINIDAD & TOBAGO
Abbot John Pereira, The Abbey of Our Lady of Exile, Mt St Benedict
with Jo-Anne S. Ferreira
Two distinguishing marks of the Catholicism brought to Trinidad by the Madeirans were its Marian flavour and its exuberance of expression. It was a popular brand of religion. These two elements were combined in the annual celebration of the Feast of Nossa Senhora do Monte (Our Lady of the Mount, the patron saint of Madeira) on 15 August. This celebration is associated with two major Catholic Shrines in Trinidad: the National Shrine of Our Lady of Laventille and the Shrine of Our Lady of Exile at Mount St Benedict.
In a letter dated 27 August 1885 written to his Superiors in France, Rev. B. Cothonay, O.P., gives a graphic description of the celebration of the Feast in honour of Nossa Senhora do Monte, the Day of the Assumption, which took place in Laventille that year. The illumination of the Church was spectacular and the procession was lively and colourful as participants decked themselves off in the picturesque costumes of the Confraternity of Madeira.
Cothonay writes, “The fireworks, which lit up the sky on the evening before the Feast, surpassed anything seen before in Port of Spain, and attracted crowds of some 2,500 persons, who climbed the hill in the dark to admire the spectacle.” (See “Cothonay,” translated by Mark Tierney, OSB, and see Sr Marie-Thérèse Rétout’s translation and adaptation from the French, Stories of Trinidad and St Vincent in the Antilles from the Journal of Bertrand Cothonay, Westindiana, 2008.)
The Port of Spain Gazette, in its edition of 22 August 1916, carried the headline “The Portuguese Fete” to describe the celebration of the Feast at Mount St Benedict that year. On account of inclement weather though, the celebrations were a bit subdued:
“The great Portuguese Feast of Nossa Senhora do Monte was again this year, celebrated with becoming solemnity at Mount St Benedict on last Sunday. On the previous day numbers of Portuguese and others proceeded to the Mountain which was elaborately decorated and preparations for a lovely illumination made. There was also music and other forms of innocent amusement, but, unfortunately, through the torrential rains the illumination, save for the electric devices had almost to be abandoned.”
From Sr Marie-Thérèse Rétout’s Parish Beat, we learn the following:
Hills and shrines seem to have a natural attraction. “In 1874”, to quote Rev. Fr. Vincent Leahy and Errol Cooper who have done much research in the history of Laventille, “Père Violette O.P. left the Belmont parish and took pastoral charge of Upper Laventille. About where the entrance to the present Laventille shrine cemetery is, a poor woman donated a parcel of land for a church which was built of tapia and dedicated to St. Thomas Aquinas. About 1875 a group of Portuguese folk, recalling memories of their Madeira homeland and its famous Shrine of Nossa Senhora do Monte (built on a hill where magnificent and joyous Marian festivals were held), founded a religious society to encourage Marian devotion. They fixed their eyes on the tiny chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas as their devotional centre. The then Archbishop, Mgr. Gonin O.P., approved and appointed two priests to direct this society spiritually. In 1878, Mgr. Gonin received a thirty-foot statue of Our Lady, from France. The tiny St. Thomas chapel was built in a hollow which made it unsuitable for the proper mounting of this statue, so another elderly lady, Marie Benjamin, agreed to sell to the Church a parcel of land, now occupied by the church and esplanade. There on May 19, 1879, two Dominican lay brothers began to build a chapel of timber. At the request of the Archbishop a belfry was erected as well, but insufficient foundations and torrential rains combined in 1882 to flood the chapel. Chapel and belfry came down on the night of June 27. Undaunted, Frère Jacques, Père Hilaire and their parishioners set to work again. They constructed a stone belfry (still standing) while the top of the statue was set up fifty-four feet from the ground. It was not before 1886 that on the site of the timber church a stone church was commenced. The feast of Our Lady’s Assumption into Heaven was to become a date of great religious importance at the Shrine. Indeed, it was to become the principal one, up to the days of Archbishop Finbar Ryan O.P. who inaugurated the now famous “Fatima Devotions.””
The Portuguese did not hold back on monies spent at these celebrations, such was their devotion to the faith. Cothonay says that the celebrations in Laventille in 1885 cost approximately 2,840 francs, quite a sum for that time. This popular brand of religiosity as espoused by the Madeirans was a unifying factor among them and helped as well to popularise the Catholic faith.
Our Lady of Fatima, Mount St Benedict
The larger-than-life statue of Our Lady of Fatima in the Abbey Church at Mount St Benedict is a gift from a Portuguese businessman in the 1950s. The Sunday Guardian of 19 July 1953 gave a report about the statue, written by a Staff Reporter, entitled “Fatima Image at Mount Genuine Work of Art.” There are several other articles in 1953 in the Trinidad Guardian reporting the blessing of the Statue at Mount St Benedict by His Most Rev. Excellency Count Finbar Ryan, Archbishop of Port of Spain in the presence of over 1,000 people. One article reported the following:
“What is likely to cause quite an attraction among pilgrims to Mount St. Benedict is now resting in the Abbey Church there. It is the third of its kind in the world and Roman Catholics in this colony have just reason to be very proud. It is a life-size statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Carved from cedar wood in the ateliers of Maias Brothers, Portugal, it took the artist, Amálio Maia, nine months to complete. Until now only three statues of its kind have been made. The first was made of the Church of Our Lady of Mercy at Lisbon, another for Brazil and the third for Trinidad. So excellent has been the job done by Maia that when one of Portugal’s leading sculptors, Francisco Franco saw the statue he was reported to have said: “I believe to be in the presence of the real apparition of the Blessed Virgin at the Cova da Iria.” The entire height of the statue is a little more than six feet (6.88) which includes a pedestal of the top of the oak-tree on which Our Lady appeared and the cloud that surrounded her feet. The figure itself is 5.41 feet in height and richly decorated with precious stones. It is a gift of a benefactor of the Monastery of a fulfilment of a promise made to Our Lady but he prefers to remain anonymous. Maia worked along the directions given by Fr Neves, the Parish Priest of Our Lady of Mercy at Lisbon who expressed the wish that the statue should come as closely as possible to the descriptions of the visionaries of Fatima. The result is that this representation, especially on account of the graceful movements of Our Lady’s garments in the wind, is much more lively than the earlier images such as known from the visit of the Pilgrim Virgin. It was planned to have the statue at an exhibition of religious art to be held in Portugal but on account of early shipment this was impossible. At 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 26 the statue will be solemnly blessed by His Most Rev. Excellency Count Finbar Ryan, Archbishop of Port-of-Spain in front of the Abbey Church, after which he will preach a special sermon followed by Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.”
Although the flamboyant style of Madeira religious practice has receded into history, the present Laventille devotions continue to be supported by the local Portuguese community in tangible ways. Laventille is very dear to the Portuguese as “the mortar which held the corner stone was laid on by a Portuguese princess, Princess Aldegonda (Aldegundes) of the House of Bragança and by her French husband, Henri de Bourbon-Parma, Count of Bardi. In 1886, this royal couple became patrons and benefactors of the Laventille church and their presence at that event served to reunite Portuguese Catholics around the country” (Jo-Anne S. Ferreira, The Portuguese of Trinidad and Tobago).
That year, as Adrian Camps-Campins notes, “their Royal Highnesses were invited to the christening ceremony of Mr Antonio Mendes’ new home (adjacent to the Coblentz house).... The christening ceremony was unique, being conducted by the Rev Alick Ramsey of the St Ann’s Church of Scotland, and Reverend C.O. Hanlon of the Roman Catholic Church, and during the luncheon which followed, the Royal party were entertained by a selection of melodies by the St Ann’s string band.” This was on the site of the present Aldegonda Park in St Ann’s, named after the Portuguese Princess, Infanta Regente de Portugal, Princesa de Parma, Duchess of Guimarães. Their Royal Highnesses also planted Portuguese orange trees in Valsayn in that same year.
The Portuguese have by and large been integrated into the wider Trinidad & Tobago society and are not very conspicuous as an ethnic entity on its own. There have been many inter-racial unions and other societal merging which have obscured its identity as a unique and separate cultural or ethnic unit.
In any event, the Portuguese have always been a very small minority in Trinidad & Tobago society. The impact of the Portuguese on the society, including the Catholic Church, however, betrays this minority status. There are several persons of Portuguese lineage in the Catholic Church who are serving as dedicated Catholics in the Church as catechists and in other areas, including priests and religious, and many devoted husbands and wives who have chosen to serve the Church, raising families dedicated to Catholic principles.
Portuguese Trinidadians in the Clergy
Among the clergy, the late John Mendes became Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Port-of-Spain under Archbishop Anthony Pantin (of interest: four of the late Archbishop’s siblings married into Portuguese families). The present Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Port-of-Spain, Msgr Christian Pereira and his brother Abbot John Pereira are of Portuguese extract. Sr Paul D’Ornellas, of the Sisters of Cluny, has served for many years as Principal of St Joseph’s Convent in Port-of-Spain and has been recognised by the Government of Trinidad & Tobago for her contribution to Education. Fr Ronald Mendes, C.S.Sp., is Principal of St Mary’s College in Port-of-Spain. Both Sr Paul and Fr Ron are descended from Presbyterian Portuguese. Other nuns include Sr Patty de Freitas, Sr Rose d’Ornellas, Sr Helen Gomes and Sr Pacelli Neto. In addition, Archbishop Manuel Monteiro de Castro, of Portugal, served as Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to the Antilles Episcopal Conference, for several years from 1985, and was the Official Representative of the Vatican State in Trinidad & Tobago.
In conclusion, I can say that the contribution of the Portuguese to the Roman Catholic Church in Trinidad and Tobago is at two levels: global and individual. Globally, it has enhanced a sense of joie de vivre in Catholics’ expression of their faith (Feasts and Festivals), a quality that is so naturally Caribbean, and individually, it has produced citizens and Catholics who are committed to living out their faith in dedicated service to the Lord Jesus Christ and to their fellow-citizens.
Bishop John Mendes (by Janine Mendes-Franco)
Born in 1926 in Siparia, the late John Mendes became Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Port of Spain under Archbishop Anthony Pantin. Offered up to God by his parents for a life in the priesthood while he was still in utero, John Mendes (1926-2005) was one of the first fruits of the local Roman Catholic Seminary. He was ordained at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on 1 November 1953. Soon afterwards, Archbishop Finbar Ryan appointed him as an exorcist. As a young priest, he was posted to the parish of La Brea, the first of many he would preside over, including San Fernando, Maraval and La Romaine. Mendes’ reputation as “The Exorcist” preceded him - he was routinely consulted by people from across the region, particularly when it came to difficult cases of possession. Pope John Paul II ordained him as a Bishop on 6 January 1989. Mendes also served as Cathedral Administrator, Rector of Mount St. Benedict and Head of the Family Life Commission.
Sr Paul d'Ornellas
As a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, Sr. Paul D’Ornellas has devoted her life to education. She was Principal of St. Joseph’s Convent, San Fernando from 1966 to December 1971 and Principal of St. Joseph’s Convent, Port-of-Spain from January 1972 to December 1990. After her retirement from the Teaching Service she was awarded the Public Service Medal (Gold) for her contribution to education. Sr. Paul D’Ornellas holds a BA degree from the University of London, a Certificate in School Organisation and Administration from Oxford University, and an MEd and MA from the University of Birmingham. She has trained in counselling in England, Ireland and the USA. She has served on numerous Government and non-Government committees on educational development and as director of several charitable organisations. She is coordinator in Trinidad & Tobago of Contemplative Outreach, a worldwide network of faith communities, and is founder and president of the Foundation for Human Development, a non-profit organisation which was established after her retirement. Both of Sr. Paul’s grandfathers were Presbyterian, her grandmothers Roman Catholic. Her paternal grandfather fled from Madeira during the persecution of the Presbyterians there and he and his family settled in Guyana. Her father, as a young man, came to Trinidad where he met her mother who was in Trinidad on holiday from Grenada. The extended family has been involved in both the Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
See greetings from the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Thomas E. Gullickson.
© John Pereira, 2011