Thursday, 26 January 2012

Saving Trinidad's David Copperfields


130 years of St. Dominic's Children's Home

Port of Spain, particularly east Port of Spain, 130 years ago, was a crucible for destitute people who came from all over the island to the city seeking opportunities. Three decades after the abolition of slavery, the children of the ex-slaves had now had children themselves. Unemployment was high, wages were miserable, and many could not care for their offspring as they should have.
Abandonment and homelessness was the fate of many small infants and youngsters, who were the children of the poorest of the poor. They could be seen everywhere in the streets, begging, loitering, without any education or care, without love. Many were naked, and the more industrious ones took to stealing. In their abandonment, they shared the fate with thousands of children in Europe, children of parents whom the Industrial Revolution had left behind, who suffered from illness, bitter cold, hunger and thirst, and desperation in their loneliness. In some cases, their parents were imprisoned for debt, or were simply too sick or destitute to bother with their kids. Charles Dickens' "David Copperfield" is an example of what abandoned children in London had to endure, and Port of Spain knew many of those little David Copperfields, both boys and girls.
One man, the parish priest of Rosary Church, could not bear seeing the misery of the street children on a daily basis. His church was literally surrounded by this misery, and at any point in time, one could find two or three little ones huddled in the church's portals, holding out their tiny, dirty hands for alms. Father Mariano Forestier decided to found a home for those children, intent on not only saving their souls, but also their miserable little bodies from starvation. Mr. Leroy came to his assistance, and together with other friends, the priest bought a small property on the summit of the "Morne" in Belmont, overlooking Port of Spain.
As soon as the sale was finalised, three children were picked off the streets and given into the care of Father Forestier's children's home. Who knows who their parents were, and why they had to roam the streets of the city all by themselves? Maybe they were orphans, maybe they weren't. But those three out of many had at least found a home now, a home where kind ladies took care of them, begged for them, clothed, bathed, and fed them on a daily basis. Soon, they were joined by other children, and by the end of 1871, their number had risen to eleven.
Five years later, Father Forestier got the Dominican sisters, who had established themselves in Cocorite in 1868, to take on those little charges. Christmas of 1876 saw 66 pairs of big eyes glow expectantly - maybe this year Father Christmas would not forget them?
The old building was bursting at its seams with so many children. The Dominican Sisters recruited everybody to help with the extension to the home. In their annals, it is recorded that the boys and girls carried all the water, stones and cement up to the Morne for the builders to get to work! The little ones had little buckets, and the older ones took a brick or two, and all trundled back and forth to see their new living quarters grow.
"Wood, slates and bricks too had to be carried up," writes Olga Mavrogordato in her book "Voices in the Street". "Some had boxes and baskets, others had old pans, old plates and jugs, and they counted the number of their journeys during the morning."
The parish priest of Maraval, Padre Alvarez, also mobilised his parishioners. More than 250 people came to help! From 7 o'clock in the morning until 3 o'clock in the afternoon, women, children and men worked on the extension of the children's home. Of course, the work was not completed in one day, and many of the inhabitants of Belmont, as well as the Societies of St. Anthony and the Holy Trinity, all came and lent a helping hand, levelling, digging, carrying water and materials, or simply cooking food and distributing some lunches for everybody.
Three years later, the extension as well as the chapel and a house for the sisters was equally completed. At the end 1879, Father Forestier gave over the home to the Archbishop of Port of Spain, which was at that time Most Rev. L.J. Gonin O.P.
Over the years, more building work was done and the wooden buildings of the children's home gave way to concrete houses. Also, the number of children increased steadily. A government grant provided the financial backbone of the home, but it also depends ongoingly on the goodwill of charitable people.
One of the distinct features is the home's bakery. There, the older children learnt how to bake their own bread - and how much better it tastes if you make it yourself! It was important for these parentless children to learn a trade, so that later, when they become old enough to leave the home, they would be able to make a living. Not only baking, but also cabinet making and shoe making and tailoring was taught in the classes. The children's home also produced a very attained band, and oftentimes, members of this band are accepted by the Police and Regiment bands.
Father Mariano Forestier died in 1901. "The little cottage on the Morne which sheltered those first three little children whom Father Forestier received, became a large home, comprising ten buildings, where lived more than 400 children."
And for those who have never seen this historical and social monument, go and visit the St. Dominic's Home for Children in Belmont!

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