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Historic St Peter's struggling to fill pews

BY OSHANE TOBIAS Observer writer

Monday, July 30, 2012    

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ALLEY, Clarendon — St Peter's Anglican Church here is perhaps the most enduring physical reminder of early English colonisers in south eastern Clarendon.

Sugar is no longer king, so not many cane fields exist, and if the ethnicity of the neighbourhood (mostly East Indian and African descendants) is anything to go by, then one would be hard-pressed to think that the English had much cultural influence here.

However, the colonial heritage is not outdone as St Peter's, the embodiment of 17th-century British architecture, is a profound statement that the English, too, were intent on leaving an indelible legacy.

This year, the church, which is said to be the third oldest in Jamaica, celebrates 341 years of existence, making it much older and more storied than any other building within its vicinity.

Its 28-year-old priest Reverend Marlon Simpson confesses to be in as much awe as anyone else.

"It's a pretty awesome feeling to be numbered amongst those who have served here," Simpson told Jamaica Observer Central. "This church has a rich history and I am really happy to be here working in the area, and being the second-youngest priest in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands to be matched with one of the oldest churches around is really a great privilege, " he added.

Simpson was born in Kingston, but migrated to Clarendon when he became rector for the Anglican's Vere Cure in 2010. He now oversees the operation of five other churches on the plains of Vere, but it is St Peter's that poses the biggest challenge.

The young priest is not only charged with the responsibility of preserving the historicity of the church - which houses some of the oldest ornaments of British colonial Jamaica. He also has to find innovative ways of increasing its membership, which has waned drastically since it was founded as the parish church of the former parish of Vere in 1671.

"Today we are about 35 to 40 on Sundays, which (represents) a small increase, especially in the number of children, since I started here," Simpson noted.

"We started with probably about three children and now we are up to about 15, so it is quite a lot of work in trying to rebuild the membership and also helping them to have an appreciation for the historicity," he said.

The church is deeply rooted in 17th and 18th century Jamaican slave plantation society, which thrived mainly on sugar. Up to a few decades ago, the congregation mainly comprised managers and other employees of the Monymusk Sugar Factory.

However, as sugar production declined, St Peter's struggled to retain its members.

"When sugar production was at its peak the congregation was very strong," said John Plummer, who has been a member of the church for over 50 years. "Members of staff at Monymusk used to worship here, but because of the decline in sugar a number of farmers went out of business and we are now struggling as a result," he said.

"We are now hoping to develop some kind of membership drive to really restore the church to what it was," Plummer added.

Attached to that membership drive, Simpson said, is a proposal to promote the church as a tourist attraction.

"We are thinking about the idea because a number of persons are showing interest in the building itself. We are hoping to open it not only on Sundays, but also on particular days of the week so that persons can come in and view it," he said.

"There are also a number of (other) programmes coming up that are geared toward the children; because my aim is not necessarily to have everybody become an Anglican, but at least to know who God is," the priest said.

Yesterday, perhaps, provided the perfect opportunity for Simpson and his congregation to test the feasibility of the proposed tourist attraction idea. The church hosted the official opening service of Clarendon's Jamaica 50 celebrations.

"It's a pretty awesome responsibility to be a part of the Jamaica 50 celebration," Simpson said. "I have never done anything of this magnitude, but I am going forth knowing that we, the members of the church, have done our best," he said.

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