It is recorded in the gospel of Mark that Christ said: “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the good news to all creation.”
With this injunction firmly entrenched, Christian missionaries set out to change the world. And in truth, they succeeded. Fanning out from Palestine in the Near East, the ‘good news’ was taken westward by St. James, brother of the Lord, to Spain with another relative, Joseph of Amerithia, reaching the British isles. St. Thomas, also known as Jude, travelled to Central Asia, to Edessa, where it is said that the first church was built, and then to India, where he was martyred. Martyrdom was central to the theme in that time, as Peter, Paul and Stephen so met their deaths along with untold thousands of Christians.
The occupation of Spain by Muslim armies before the end of the first millennium of the Christian era posed a significant threat to the warm heartland of Central Europe. It was more than five hundred years before the Moors could be driven back to Africa across the Straits of Gibraltar.
The zeal of reconquest, inspired by the church triumphant, brought missionaries sailing in the wake of Columbus to the New World. The religious orders, especially the Dominicans, Franciscans and Augustinians, were quick to send ‘labourers to the new fields’. Within 25 years of the establishment of the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, Trinidad received its first missionaries, Frs. Francisco de Cordova and Juan Garces. Within months, they were martyrs.
It was difficult for the Caribs to tell the difference between the strangers who came with bell, book and candle to pray, and those who arrived with sword and shot to capture and enslave. To them, the strangely-behaved Spaniards must have seemed one and the same.
Some 45 years went to pass before another try was made with the ‘good news’. In the 1560s, the saintly Louis Bertrand O.P. tried in the islands of St. Vincent, Tobago and Trinidad to convert the fierce Carib tribes. He was not successful and was recalled to Spain.
For the island people, the appalling intrusion by these aliens forever disrupted their cultural evolution and their days of great peace living in their ancient forest. Venturing endlessly in great migrations from mainland to island and from island to island, guided by the stars and their hearts’ desire: all this came swiftly to an end with the advent of the Europeans.
Capuchins of the ‘Strict Observance’ came to Trinidad in 1571 with conquistador Don Juan Ponce of Seville. His mission of conquest faltered in the swamps of Mucurapo. The arrows of the Caribs, tipped with poisonous machineel, killed the Spaniards’ precious horses. The smell of human flesh being cooked drove even brave men to flee in fear. They left.
Five years later, two Jesuits, Frs. Llauri de Vergara came, survived, and journeyed up the Orinoco to Santo Tome of Guyana.
In Trinidad, unknown thousands of tribal people were captured into slavery. Hundreds more lost their lives when the Spaniards made them dive for pearls in the Gulf of Paria; many others were killed in the several attempts of ‘pacification’.
Gone forever were the happy years of their own cheerful massacres, conquest of islands and stealing of wives. Already they were fading across the narrow sea to the mainland, whence they had come hundreds of years before - a sad reversal.
But notwithstanding that, they still numbered in their tribes brave ones who looked out from their mountain villages at the small clearings in the forest, where the strangers, dressed in white, worked small fields, prayed and chanted, and in their own fashion attempted to be kind.
One can say that by 1591, the first ecclesiastic foundation was made. Don Antonio de Berrio came to Trinidad and created San José de Oruna (St. Joseph), bringing with him several priests.
On a piece of flat land overlooking the Caroni planes, the great forest was removed, and with mud and the leaves of the carat plant a little ajoupa village was formed. A convent with a church was constructed with a thatch roof, tall forest trees for uprights and vines binding the beams together. De Berrio also built a hospice for the friars, to which he gave the name of his patron San Antonio.
The Capuchins took possession of their convent in 1593. Two years later, San José was overrun by Sir Walter Raleigh. Three or four years later, 2,000 colonists arrived from Spain with ten priests. The Caribs, the weather, the lonely desolation of the longest rainy season they ever experienced, rotted the carat roofs and melted the mission walls. Mildew covered everything. The Europeans began to die. They too left - Trinidad was not easy!
Francisco Leite was born in Cumana, New Granada (now Venezuela) in the 1620s. A pious man, possessed of great kindness, he was also able to speak several native dialects. He formed a plan to pacify the tribal people with kindness, generosity and persuasion. He petitioned the King in Spain for priests, whom he could instruct in the language of the country, and whom he would accompany into the high woods of Trinidad, inhabited by the fiercest tribes.
The missions of the Catalan Capuchin friars were to prove much more successful than past attempts. Ten friars arrived in August of 1687, two came out later.
Brave hearts with the certain knowledge of God on their side, the friars made their way along the footpaths that crossed the island into its interior, sweating in their heavy woollen cassocks, tonsured heads peeling in the hot sun. Their Carib bearers were painted red with roucou against the insects, naked, chatting in their own language, and unpredictably dangerous. It was already common knowledge that Spaniards tasted better than the Dutch or the English!
The friars organised missions at Aricagua (San Juan), Tacarigua, Arouca, along the Royal Road in the north of the island. In October of 1687, a mission was established at Savana Grande (Princes Town) and one on the wooded slopes of Naparima Hill. This they dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Our Blessed Lady, which later became the mother mission in Trinidad. San Fernando was to grow around it. The Catalan Capuchins also established themselves at Savonetta and Montserrat.
In the dry months of 1688 they established a chapel on the banks of the Arena river, which flows into the Tumpuna, in a sandy area halfway between this river and the Tamanaque mountain. It was called San Francisco de los Arenales. Two years later, the friars set up missions at Mayaro, Guayaguayare and Moruga.
The missions soon had little villages like satellites in their company. The thatched church with mud walls, very crude, earthen floor, was decorated with statuettes of saints, brightly painted and imported from Spain. Always facing a little square, the church dominted the huts. Its Latin cross threw a shadow, which moved with the sun across the dirt road.
The missions to the tribal people were essentially agricultural. Vegetables were grown, lifestock kept. The people living in the missions were engaged in weaving and plaiting, making useful things, such as hammocks and sieves, and in cassava growing, which was their staple diet. The forest then was thick with gigantic trees and magnificient orchids. It teemed with bird life that flew in flocks or perched and soared in solitary splendour. There were timid deer and huge morocoys that moved with prehistoric slow motion. Agoutis and armadillos roamed the undergrowth, as did the deadly mapapie.
Days were regulated by prayer and work, which was considered sacred. To what degree discipline was imposed on the Amerindians, no one knows. The bell tolled, the day’s work commenced, and it tolled when it ended.
On 1st December, 1699, three priests were martyred by the tribal people at San Francisco de los Arenales. The martyred were brought to St. Joseph’s church and interred under the floor near to the western door. The Indians subsequently were hunted by the Spaniards, crossed the island to the east coast where they committed mass suicide. Mothers, babes in arms, old folks and young men were drowned by the surging breakers of the Atlantic Ocean.
Churches in Tobago in the 18th and 19th century
compiled by Sister Marie Therèse in ‘Parish Beat’
1781 Anglicans establish mission
1787 The Brethren of the Protestant Episcopal Church, also called the Moravians, found a mission on Riseland estate
1790 A tropical storm sweeps the island and destroys the missions
1818 The Society of Wesleyan Methodists establishes a mission
1845 Moravians return and reopen their mission. Prebyterians who had come to make a try at evangelisation in Tobago leave the island. Methodists arrive and open missions at Mt. St. George and Mason Hall.
1846 Rev. Fr. Hyacinth Barriou, a French Dominican of the Catholic Church in Trinidad, visits Tobago. A record mentions his purchase of land in 1846 and again in 1850 in view of establishing missions in Tobago.
1870 Rev. Fr. André Violette, another Dominican of Trinidad, visits Tobago and ministers to the people. He performs the baptism of one Catherine Creigh on March 5, 1870, the first one recorded in the registers of the Catholic Church in Tobago.
1885 The Dominican Fathers of Port of Spain decide to send visiting priests to Tobago on a regular basis about three or four times a year.
1892 (Catholic) priests build a church in Scarborough. It is blessed and dedicated to St. Joseph on January 31. The same year a chapel dedicated to the Sacred Heart is built by Rev. Fr. Reginald Sarthou O.P. in Delaford. This priest also baptises a person at Patience Hill that year.
1895 Catholic mission opened at Goodwood.
1897 Fr. Reginald acquires one rood and nine perches of land in Goodwood to build a church.
1898 School-chapel blessed on October 10 at Mason Hall and built by Fr. Reginald.