500 years of Christianity in Jamaica


Thursday, April 26, 2012

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Jamaica is celebrating 50 years of political Independence this year. The year 2012 marks 500 years of consistent Christianity in Jamaica and the Roman Catholic Church will commemorate this milestone. While Christopher Columbus first came to Jamaica in 1494, the first European settlers from Spain arrived in Jamaica in 1509. They were all baptised Roman Catholics as Catholicism is almost synonymous with Spain, with 99 per cent of its population being baptised Roman Catholics.

And in the year 1512 a group of Franciscan priests arrived in Jamaica. While Mass might have been said by a priest on the island before 1512 (Columbus had a priest on one of his vessels), consistent Christianity in Jamaica began in the year 1512. With the coming of the English and the banning of Roman Catholicism, the Church of England provided Christianity for the aristocracy. In later years, other churches came. So there was a continuation of Christianity in 1655, albeit in a different form.

The Catholic Church in St Jago de la Vega (now known as Spanish Town) was burnt to the ground and the church bell was melted to make bullets. There were years of fighting and the Maroons joined with the Spaniards. The first clergyman to be martyred in Jamaica was Roman Catholic priest Father Francis de Barona who encouraged resistance to the Spanish resistance to the English invasion.He was killed on the banks of the Black River in St. Elizabeth.

It is true that the English bondsmen who came here as prisoners stayed for the most part in the Caribbean and became the pirates who made Port Royal their headquarters. It is true that the English governors encouraged piracy for one main reason; they were the only defence against the Spanish who wanted to re-capture Jamaica. It is also true that the Roman Catholic Church, because of its history in Jamaica, is today less than three per cent of the Jamaican population.

It has often been said that piracy ended with the capture of Henry Morgan, his subsequent imprisonment in the Tower of London and his return as the governor of Jamaica. True, Morgan sold land cheaply to the ex-pirates and they became the so-called aristocrats. But many of them continued their piracy and the brutal form of slavery that our ancestors had to undergo was because of the stealing of people from Africa and their subsequent ill treatment.

One manifestation of the continuation of piracy after Morgan's death was the presence in Jamaica of slaves from a Spanish colony in Africa. The slaves were on a boat en route to Cuba to be sold when pirates intercepted the boat and carried them to Castle Mines in St Mary (about a mile above Preston Hill). The slaves refused to join any church other than the Roman Catholic Church. While there could not be mass because there were no priests, the doctrine was passed down verbally to their descendants by way of secret meetings.

In the Spanish Empire, the Encomienda System was basically a set of rules governing slavery in the Spanish Empire. One rule in the system was the teaching of Christianity (read Roman Catholicism). And it was that strongly implanted Catholicism by way of the Encomienda System which made the Spanish slaves in Castle Mines in St Mary, and later Preston Hill about a mile away into resisting any attempt to de-Roman Catholicise them.

After the Roman Catholic Church was restored, the Castle Mines ex-slaves asked permission to see the priest who said Mass for an Irish overseer on the Quebec Estate in St Mary. They discovered that he was truly a priest of the church that their parents and grandparents had told them about. And that is how Mass came to be said in Castle Mines and later in Preston Hill where a church was eventually built.

Sometime in the 19th century when the republicans overthrew the king in Spain, a renegade priest (Father Manuel y Loydi who took the alias of Santa Cruz) fought the war on behalf of the king. He was captured, imprisoned and sentenced to be shot to death at dawn, but he escaped and went to France and then to England. Father Loydi was sent to Jamaica where he built the St Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church in Preston Hill for the descendants of the Castle Mines slaves. The wooden church was blown down in the hurricane of 1919 and subsequently rebuilt.

I have suggested that Preston Hill be turned into an international pilgrimage site. There is a steering committee in place that is looking into the possibilities before going further. It is my hope and prayer that the people in Preston Hill will be able to provide bedroom and breakfast as well as sell souvenirs to the pilgrim tourists. So 2012 is the 500th anniversary of continuous Christianity in Jamaica, the 75th anniversary of Jamaica Welfare (now Social Development Commission), the 70th anniversary of both the Credit Union League and the Council for Voluntary Social Services, plus the 50th anniversary of Jamaica's political Independence.


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