Bahamas, The Catholic Church in the
BAHAMAS, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN THE
The Commonwealth of the Bahamas includes some 3,000 islands and cays covering an area of approximately 90,000 square miles in the North Atlantic. Located southeast of Florida and north of Cuba, the Bahamian islands—Grand Bahama, Great Abaco, Eleuthera, New Providence, Cat Island, Andros Island, San Salvador, Crooked Island, Acklins Island, Mayaguana, Long Island, Great Exuma, Great Inagua and others— terminate in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Since most of the land is of coral formation and consequently unsuitable for agriculture, the modern Bahamas has developed a major tourist economy.
History. The Bahamas were originally inhabited by the aboriginal Lucayan people. On Oct. 12, 1492 explorer
Christopher Columbus landed on San Salvador, or Guanahani, as the island was known to its native inhabitants, and claimed the area for Spain. The first Mass was offered on San Salvador in the New World. Possessing neither gold, silver, nor precious stones, the island itself was of little interest to the Spaniards, but they enslaved its population. The Lucayan natives were captured and shipped to Haiti and Cuba, where they were forced to work in the mines. Mistreated, they quickly died out. Meanwhile, the Bahamian islands became a popular haunt of pirates and buccaneers.
During the 16th century three attempts were made to wrest control of the Bahamas from Spain. In 1578 Elizabeth I of England granted to Sir Humphrey Gilbert (half brother of Sir Walter Raleigh) lands "not actually possessed of any Christian prince or people." In 1629 the English king Charles I granted to Sir Robert Heath the Lucayan Island of "Veajus (Abaco) and Bahama." Four years later, in 1633 through Cardinal Richelieu, France granted to Guillaume de Caen a barony that included part of the Bahamas, and especially Guanahani. In each of these cases circumstances prevented colonization of the islands, and the claims ultimately proved fruitless.
In 1647 British Captain William Sayle, former governor of Bermuda, obtained a grant from Charles II. Early the following year, accompanied by a small band of Puritans in search of religious freedom, Sayle landed on a Bahamian island, which he named "Eleuthera", from the Greek word Eleutherios, meaning freedom. Survivors of these first colonists settled the island of New Providence, on which Nassau is located, about 20 years later, and it became the seat of government. Proximity to the Spanish Main and shipping lanes as well as the region's many protected harbors, also attracted pirates and shipwreckers looking to elude pursuit; occasional treasure finds from wrecked Spanish galleons attracted this more adventurous element to the Bahamas. Among the most famous English pirates who frequented Bahamian waters were Sir Henry Morgan and Bill Teach, otherwise known as "Blackbeard."
The Bahamian islands' colorful reputation changed in 1718, when Captain Woodes Rogers was appointed governor and given the backing of the British Navy in an effort to restore order. The motto "Expulsis Piratis, Restituta Commercia," incorporated in the Seal of the Bahamas, memorializes his efforts. Constitutional government was established in 1728 when King George II, by order-in-council, created the House of Assembly with powers similar to those of the British House of Commons. During the American War of Independence Nassau was captured and occupied by American forces for one day in 1776 and for three days in 1783. From May of 1782 to April of 1783 Spanish forces occupied Nassau. On Jan. 7, 1964, Great Britain granted a new constitution to the Bahamas, bestowing internal self-government within the British Commonwealth while retaining control of the region's civil service, internal security and foreign affairs.
The Church in the Bahamas. In 1858 Rome placed the Bahamas under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina. Catholic priests visited Nassau sporadically until February of 1885, when Archbishop Corrigan of New York sent Rev. George O'Keefe to live on the islands. On July 28 of that same year Cardinal Simeoni of Rome's Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples ("Propaganda") transferred the Bahamas to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of New York. On Feb. 14, 1887, Archbishop Corrigan dedicated the island's first Catholic church under the patronage of St. Francis Xavier. This church, greatly enlarged, would eventually serve as a cathedral. The missions of the Church in the Bahamian Islands date from October of 1889, when Mother Ambrosia and four Sisters of Charity from Mt. St. Vincent on the Hudson in New York arrived in Nassau to establish St. Francis Xavier Academy. In January of 1890 the sisters opened the St. Francis Xavier Primary School.
At the invitation of Archbishop Corrigan, St. John's Benedictine Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota, undertook responsibility for the mission. On Feb. 2, 1891 Chrysostom Schreiner, OSB, was appointed vicar forane by the archbishop of New York. Father Chrysostom, the "Apostle of the Bahamas," spent the rest of his life in the islands and died in 1928 at San Salvador, where he was buried. Although the non-Catholic population, with its established church, was militantly anti-Catholic, within a few short years Chrysostom had established the Sacred Heart church in Nassau and several mission churches at Andros. Gabriel Roerig, OSB, who spent his 56 years of priesthood in the Bahamas, received the decoration of M.B.E. from the government in recognition of his work. The decree Constans apostolicae sedis established the island as a prefecture apostolic on March 21, 1929. On Feb. 7, 1932, John Bernard Kevenhoerster, OSB, was installed as the first prefect apostolic. In 1941 the prefecture was raised to a vicariate apostolic and Bishop Bernard was named its first vicar. Paul Leonard Hagarty, OSB, was appointed vicar apostolic on June 25, 1950. On July 5, 1960, when the Bahamas was erected into the Diocese of Nassau, he was appointed its first bishop. On July 10, 1973, the Bahamas achieved independence from the United Kingdom as a constitutional democracy.
The Church Moves into the 21st Century. During the 19th and 20th centuries the Bahamas developed a predominately Protestant culture, in part because of generations of British influence. During the islands' history, no restrictions were placed on the practice of one's faith, and freedom of religion was confirmed via Bahamas' constitution in 1973. In the year 2000 the study of the Christian religion remained an integral part of all public-school education, despite the fact that no state church was sanctioned.
As one of several minority religions in the region in the 21st century, the Catholic Church focused on both native and tourist populations. Ethnically, residents of the Bahamas are predominately of African origin, most descended from slaves or from Africans freed by the British navy while on their way to be sold into slavery. The Bahamians remained active in all phases of social, political and religious life within the islands, and it was among them that the missionary work of the Church proved most effective. By 2000 the Church claimed over 56,000 followers within the islands' population, a substantial increase over mid-1900 levels. In addition to the 13 secular priests attached to the archdiocese, 16 others were attached to religious orders; other active Catholics included a brother and 27 sisters. Eugenio Sbarbaro served as Papal representative for the region, and the Bahamas received a new archbishop in June of 2000.
Following its break from the United Kingdom, the growth of the island's tourist economy during the 1980s and 1990s proved to be a double-edged sword as drug trafficking became more common. The influx of wealthy tourists, as well as a growing off-shore banking industry, brought with it a host of social problems, from drug abuse to prostitution to AIDS. The support of the Church in battling such social ills reflected Bahamas' strong Christian heritage, despite the population's economic, ethnic and religious diversity.
Bibliography: j. h. lefroy, Memorials of the Discovery and Early Settlement of the Bermudas or Somers Islands, 2 v. (Bermuda 1932). r. a. curry, Bahamian Lore (Paris 1930). m. moseley, The Bahamas Handbook (Nassau 1926). c. j. barry, Worship and Work: St. John's Abbey and University, 1856–1956 (Collegeville, MN 1956).
[b. f. forsyth/eds.]