Tuesday 30 August 2011

The Antique Saints of Trinidad

Few genuine relics remain from Trinidad’s Spanish period. One of them is to be found in the church dedicated to Our Lady of Montserrat. This little wooden figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known as the ‘Black Virgin’, is said to be a copy of a statue of Our Lady in a shrine in Montserrat, Spain.

“In Tortuga, the ‘Black Virgin’ is placed in a side chapel reserved for its veneration,” writes Sister Marie Therese in her excellent book ‘Parish Beat’. “People come from all parts of Trinidad to pray at her feet, beseeching favours. At a date close to September 8th, her feast is celebrated. No one knows, really, when the little wooden figure of the ‘Black Virgin of Montserrat’ was brought to Tortuga, but it is presumed that it came through a Capuchin missionary from Spain.”

It is interesting to note that the earliest missionaries, the Catalan Capuchin priests, first arrived in 1687. The last Aragon Capuchin came in 1758. This serves to give an idea of the age of the ‘Black Virgin of Montserrat’.

Another remarkable figure of veneration is that of La Divina Pastora at Siparia. Sister Marie Therese relates:

“Siparia was one of the missions of the Spanish Capuchins who came from the Santa Maria province of Aragon in 1756 - 1758. Devotion to the divine shepherdess is centuries old, originating in Spain. It is said that in 1703 Our Lady appeared to a Capuchin known as the Venerable Isidore. In this visitation he was instructed to spread devotion to her under the title of ‘Our Lady, Mother of the Good Shepherd’. This devotion was introduced in Venezuela in 1715 and the first church was built in her honour in an Amerindian mission.”

The date of when the devotion to her was introduced to Trinidad is not known. There is, however, a parish record that states that the statue of La Divina Pastora was brought from Venezuela to Siparia by Spanish priest, who said that the statue had saved his life. This record dates from 1871.

The statue may well be over 100 years older than that date. Perhaps it had travelled from Spain to Venezuela in 1715, perhaps it had been taken into safekeeping by the priest in those turbulent years of Venezuela’s post-revolutionary period, when much of the church property was destroyed in the wars.

Santa Rosa de Lima was canonised in 1671. She was born in Peru of Spanish parents and became a nun in the Dominican order. She devoted her life to the sick and the destitute, and is remembered even today by the tribal people of the high Andes.

In 1757, the Capuchins of Aragon founded a mission at Arima and dedicated their work to this first New World saint, Santa Rosa. Some 30 years later, this mission was enlarged to accommodate the tribal people who had been displaced from Tacarigua, Caura and Arouca.

Dating from an early period, a figure said to be that of the saint was brought to the church. It had been discovered by villagers in the high woods, and has been the focus of veneration ever since.

Sister Marie Therese records the words of Fr. Thomas:

“In 1813, the youthful Sir Ralph Woodford attended the Santa Rosa festival. On this joyous occasion, the church is decorated. During the service, a cannon was discharged at intervals. At the end of the mass, ceremonial dances were performed in the church to the accompaniment of the cuatro and the chac-chac. The four leading Caribs of the mission bore the statue in procession, immediately followed by the Carib queen, who was dressed like a bird of paradise.”

According to H.A.A. de Verteuil, the king and the queen of the Caribs in the early 19th century were usually young people. The church was elaborately decorated with produce, and people came from afar to view the ceremonies. An excerpt from a report by Don Domingo de Vara to the Spanish king in 1595:

“The Indians for their labour will gain instruction in the matters of Our Holy Faith and shelter and protection, as though our children, so that they may recognise and appreciate the great work which our Commander does in bringing them to the obedience and protection of His Majesty. From this, those who wish to go will learn that we intend to populate these lands and not to depopulate them; to develop them and not to exploit them; to control them and not to destroy them. Those who do not accept this are warned that they will suffer the anger of God who has clearly shown that those who rob and maltreat the Indians, perish in the land they try to desolate, and their riches, acquired by deceit and tyranny, are lost in the sea and their families perish and are forgotten."

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