Saturday, October 11, 2008

Brief History of the Catholic Church in Basseterre, St Kitts in the last 150 years

Roman Catholicism in St. Kitts revived from its ashes in the 19th century and flourished. In 1846 several hundred Portuguese from Madeira came to St. Kitts and were instructed in reviving the Catholic religion. Together with a few catholic families from the neighbouring islands of St. Maarten and St. Bartholomew, who had already settled on the island. Also some Irish Catholics fleeing the Irish Potato Famine have arrived in Basseterre and settled in what today is known as Irish Town in the western part of downtown Basseterre.


The first priest to arrive and work on theisland was Rev Fr. Hugh MacShane but it was under his successor Fr. John Taaffle that the erection of the church on Basseterre started. During the ministry of Fr. Michael O’Donnelly the church walls continued to rise, but could not be completed due to lack of funds.
In 1858 Fr. Phillip Lynch was officially appointed as the first parish priest of St. Kitts. This date marks the official establishment of the canonical parish on the island. He was sent to reside here in an effort to have the Church completed; there being no Presbytery, Fr Lynch lived free of charge with Mr. Emile S. Delisle, and Divine Service was held in a private home on Liverpool Row. Father worked with great energy on the church which had been under construction for over 12 years. A gift was made to the Church by Bishop Poirier of a beautiful statue of our Lady Immaculate and of a precious Crown of diamonds for the Madonna. In 1863 he also donated the 14 Stations of the Cross. In 1860 Fr. J.G. van Os succeeded Fr. Lynch, and he threw himself heart and soul into this work. His predecessor has completed the Church, but many immigrants were scattered over the entire island and consequently not within an easy reach of the pastor. He asked for and obtained from the bishop permission to say Holy Mass and administer the Sacraments in private homes, in case of necessity, on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Soon the happy results of his zeal were noticeable. His health, however, suffered, and he was transferred. Next pastor Rev Patrick Smith was able to acquire for the Church the two properties; north and south of the Church, where the present Presbytery and Parish Centre now stand. The Title Deed of both properties is dated Sept 3, 1863. In 1864 Fr. John Molly arrived and started to build the Presbytery and the school on the newly acquired lands. The Presbytery was ready for occupation late in 1867, however, the school which he built was forced to close in 1872 through lack of funds. Between 1874 and 1884 no fewer than nine different Priests ministered to the Catholics of St. Kitts. In 1884 Fr. Peter Smyth came, and his ministry lasted for the nearly 20 years.


The Convent was completed in 1895 and in Convent School opened in July 1896 with four Sisters of Mercy from England and 40 pupils. In 1901 Fr Smith imported new Stations of the Cross, and two years later the beautiful Statue of the Immaculate Conception, Patroness of the Church.
The Redemptorist Fathers arrived in 1904 with Fr. Alphonsus Stainforth CSsR as the parish priest. In 1906 Father purchased a large property beyond the Presbytery gardens, which he turned into schoolroom and the garden into a playground. The old schoolroom he made into a Sacristy and Oratory.
Both the bishop and the Parish priest worked very hard to secure Nuns to re-open the Convent, and finally in August 1911 they obtained the consent of the Order of the Union of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters arrived on December 5 of the same year. The Convent was re-opened in January 1912, and managed to stay open largely due to the benevolence and generosity of Mr Joseph Farrara and Mrs E. Pistana. In 1913 Rev Fr. Joseph Hermans, CSsR arrived, and his work with the youth and the various Church Societies was remarkable. In 1916 yet another property was bought for 300.00 pounds, north of and adjoining the Convent. This was used to expand the schools to build new classrooms and make a space for a playground.
Here a mention of various sisters who administered the schools should be made, especially the Convent of the Union of Sacred heart, the Sisters of Mercy, the ICM sisters and most recently the Caribbean native sisters from Jamaica the Franciscan Missionary Sisters.

BUILDING OF THE (NEW) CHURCH (present Co-Cathedral)

In 1923 the then Parish Priest, Fr. Rabaey expressed from the pulpit the hope the hope that the Catholics of Basseterre be able to boast of the better church. At once collections were taken up, bazaars and concerts organized and appeals were made, and the work was undertaken without delay. On January 16, 1927 a farewell sermon was preached to the old church all furniture including the organ was removed to the hall, transformed into a temporary Church. The walls of the old church were taken down to give space for the new church built on the same spot. The work commenced on the new Church on the 17th of March 1927 St. Patrick’s Day- and on 22nd of April the Memorial stone was solemnly blessed. The church rose as if by magic, under the able direction of Fr. Claeys assisted by Bro. Mathias, with Fr. De Ridder running the Parish, and in less than two years it was completed. The dedication of the new church of the Immaculate Conception took place on December 1928. The Redemptorist Fathers from Belgium and Ireland worked in the parish from 1904 until 1981. One of the well known and remembered Redemptorist priests who worked in the parishes of St. Kitts is Fr. John Bergmans CSsR, now retired in Belgium who worked in St Kitts from 1956 until 1981. The other priest who served only as assistant priest but worked very hard with the choirs and made the Immaculate Conception choir very famous in the Leeward Islands and beyond was Fr. Van den Berge


Until 1970's St. Kitts together with other Leeward Islands was a part of the Diocese of Roseau (Dominica). In 1971 a new diocese was formed comprising of the English speaking Leeward Islands north of Guadeloupe, Most Rev. Joseph Bowers, SVD became bishop of the Diocese of St. Johns (in Antigua) He was able to draw confreres of the Divine Word Missionaries to help in the diocese to carry one the work of Evangelization. The first to answer his call was Fr. Jacques Nyssen, who repaired the church of the Immaculate Conception, the Presbytery and the Convent - now the Pastoral Centre.
Most Rev. Donald Reece D.D from Jamaica became bishop of the Diocese in October 1981 on the retirement of Bp. Joseph Bowers. It was a year in which Antigua and Barbuda gained their independence from Great Britain. Two years later, in September 1983 the twin islands of St. Kitts and Nevis became an independent nation. This was the time when both capitals of the two independent nations needed to have their Cathedral. It was a time when a new cathedral started to be built in St. Johns, Antigua and this church of Immaculate Conception was raised to the rank of the Co-Cathedral.


With the elevation of the Immaculate Conception church to the rank of Co-Cathedral the Diocese’s name has changed from Diocese of St. Johns-Antigua to Diocese of St. John’s-Basseterre. Under the very dynamic leadership of Bishop Donald J. Reece many of the reforms of the Vatican II were implemented and the laity has assumed many responsibilities, including the administration of the Catholic schools and the work of catechists which was largely reserved to religious sisters and priests before. Fr. Jacques Nyssen, SVD besides the work of repair and renovations has also introduced many lay ministries and apostolates which exist till today. He started the St. Vincent de Paul Society and established the first Parish Pastoral Council.
From the early 1980's until today the Parish clergy are from the Society of the Divine Word (SVD’s) with the exception of Fr. Edward Lawlor and Fr. Gerard Critch who were ordained priests for the ne Diocese of St. John’s Basseterre and served the Co-Cathedral in later part of 1980's.
From 1986 until 2007 the Sisters of St. Martha of Antigonish in Canada did pastoral work in the parish and schools. Among them sisters Brendalee, Sr. Donna, Sr. Mary and Sr. Theresa are well remembered among many others. They engaged especially in catechetical, social work and Prison ministry. One of the recent priests, well remembered is Fr. Frank Power, SVD who worked as parish priest for nine years (1991-2000). Under his leadership some new lay ministries and groups were established and the former convent; Formation House was renovated and transformed into Parish Centre. Fr. Larry Finnegan, SVD who succeeded him started fund-raising for the renovation of the Presbytery. The presbytery was completely rebuilt to retain its former fa├žade in 2006. In 2007 with the help of the generous donor the plans for amalgamation of two schools St. Theresa’s Convent and the St. Joseph school has begun. The project envisages complete rebuilding of the schools by 2011 and on the place of the two schools opening one Immaculate Conception School. In 2007 also the plans and fund-raising started for the complete renovation of the Co-Cathedral.

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