Belize, The Catholic Church in

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Located in Central America at the south of the Yucatán Peninsula, Belize is bound on the north by Mexico, on the east by the Caribbean, and on the south and west by Guatemala; the River Sarstoon flows along its southern boundary. A number of islets, reefs and cays are scattered along its coast. A tropical climate, frequent hurricanes during the fall months, and coastal flooding characterize much of the region, which has a swampy coastal plain rising to low mountains in the south. The region's most important exports are sugar, bananas and citrus; natural resources include timber, fish and hydro-power. Tourism was on the increase by 2000, bolstering the Belizean economy despite a corresponding increase in crime due to the South American drug trade. Mayans, the original inhabitants of the region, are a minority population; the majority of Belizeans are descendants of early European settlers and African slaves. Formerly known as British Honduras, Belize gained its independence in 1981.

History of the Church. Evangelization efforts in Belize were concurrent with those in Guatemala, occurring during the 16th century. By the mid-1600s the region was home to British lumbermen who emigrated from Jamaica. In 1786 the region was made a superindependency of Great Britain, to which the Bay Islands were added in 1841. Belize received its first Catholic settlers in 1830. At the time Franciscan priest Fray Antonio arrived to serve the new immigrants, Belize was included in the vicariate of Trinidad. In 1836 it became a part of the vicariate of Jamaica. In 1851 Benito Fernández, a Franciscan and the first vicar apostolic, sent two Jesuit missionaries to tend the refugees of the native revolt in the Yucatán. The region was made a crown colony under Jamaica from 1862 to 1884. In 1888 communication difficulties with the vicariate of Jamaica caused the region, then known as British Honduras, to become a prefecture apostolic. Five years later the mission was made a vicariate apostolic and put under the direction of the Jesuits of the Missouri province. In November of 1956, the vicariate was raised to a diocese, and Vicar Apostolic David Hickey, SJ, was named the first bishop of Belize.

From 1899 to his drowning in 1923, Bishop Frederick Hopkins, SJ, oversaw great progress in establishing the faith, including the opening of a convent by the Pallottine Sisters at Benque Viejo. The blessing of the novitiate for the Pallottine Sisters occurred in 1931; the same year a hurricane devastated Belize City and took the lives of 11 Jesuits. Many of the mission's buildings, including those of St. John's College, were destroyed, although generous benefactors enabled the mission to continue. Major hurricanes struck again during the 1940s, forcing the Church to undertake a large reconstruction program. In 1955 hurricane Janet destroyed many northern towns, including Corozal, which necessitated yet more reconstruction.

The main contribution of the Church in Belize occurred in the field of education, as the majority of the nation's schools were affiliated with a church. In the 1890s the Sisters of Mercy opened an academy for girls, while the Jesuits started a secondary school that would eventually become St. John's College. The Sisters of the Holy Family established elementary and secondary schools for girls, while a teacher training program began in July of 1947. An extension of St. John's College was established in 1947, and that of St. John's Teachers' College in 1954. The Lyman Agricultural College, established in 1954, anticipated the United Nations' Development Plan for British Honduras, which stressed agricultural improvements as a solution for the country's economic ills. At the grade-school level the government supported Church efforts by paying teachers' salaries and a percentage of the building and maintenance costs. In secondary schooling the diocese was aided by Papal Volunteers and the Peace Corps. Religion was part of the mandatory curriculum in both private and state-run schools in Belize.

Into the 21st Century. Rooted in the nationalization movement begun at the Jesuit-run St. John's College in the 1940s, the Belizeans implemented a new constitution in 1960 and were granted internal independence from Great Britain five years later. Full independence was achieved on Sept. 21, 1981, after which time the country operated as a parliamentary democracy within the British Commonwealth, with Queen Elizabeth II chief of state and a governor general acting for the Crown locally. Relations between Church and State remained amicable after independence was granted, and in 1991 a longstanding border dispute with Guatemala was finally resolved. Under the constitution of 1981, absolute freedom of worship prevailed, and no established church existed, although the country was founded "upon principles which acknowledge the supremacy of God." The Catholic faith continued to predominate, despite the efforts of a number of evangelical Protestant movements.

As of 2000 Belize had 13 parishes, served by 15 diocesan priests, 23 religious priests, eight brothers and 71 sisters. Most government leaders were also Roman Catholic, and Church-affiliated organizations such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Catholic Relief Services aided in humanitarian efforts throughout the region. The Church operated 139 primary schools and six secondary schools in the country, instilling Catholic values in an estimated 35,000 young people each year.

Bibliography: a. c. s. wright et al., Land in British Honduras (London 1959). s. l. caiger, British Honduras: Past and Present (London 1951). j. h. parry and p. m. sherlock, Short History of the British West Indies (New York 1956). e. o. winzerling, The Beginning of British Honduras, 15061765 (New York 1946;1960). f. c. hopkins, "The Catholic Church in British Honduras, 18511918," American Catholic Historical Review, 4 (191819) 304314.

[r. f. o'toole/eds.]