Jamaica, The Catholic Church in
JAMAICA, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Located in the Caribbean Sea, south of Cuba, the West Indian island of Jamaica is a mountainous land edged by a narrow coastal plain. Its highest point, Blue Mt. Peak, located at the island's east stands at 7,388 ft. The climate is tropical, ranging to more temperate in the island's interior, and hurricanes are commonplace from July to November. Natural resources include bauxite, gypsum and limestone, while agricultural crops consist of sugarcane, banana, coffee, citrus fruits and vegetables.
A Spanish possession until the mid-17th century, Jamaica was under the control of the British as a colony until 1958. A flourishing slave trade existed at Port Royal until an earthquake demolished that city; Kingston became the capital and center for commerce in 1692. In 1958 Jamaica became a territory of the West Indies Federation and was granted independence four years later as part of the British Commonwealth. Ethnically, 90 percent of Jamaicans are of African heritage, with small groups of East Indians, Chinese and Europeans.
Early History. The region was originally inhabited by the Sub-Tainos, or Arawak people, aborigines who migrated from northern Venezuela by a.d. 700. As was the case with so many native cultures, these people would be all but exterminated with the introduction of European diseases, alcohol and violence. On May 5, 1494, Christopher Columbus anchored at St. Ann's Bay on his way to what is now known as Rio Bueno, and named the island Santiago. Mass was probably first celebrated by Columbus's chaplain, a Mercedarian priest, at Puerto Bueno between May 6 and May 9, 1494. In November of 1509, Spanish colonization began with the founding of New Seville. Although it is probable that a missionary accompanied the first colonizers, it is certain that Franciscans were in Jamaica by 1512, establishing themselves in New Seville and later in Santiago de la Vega, where they built a monastery and a church dedicated to St. James. By 1514 colonists numbered 500. The repartimiento system was instituted by royal decree on July 26, 1515. Christian influence spread along the coast wherever Spaniards settled to carve out plantations or cattle ranches. Too poor to support a bishop, Jamaica was given an abbot nullius diocesis as ordinary with episcopal jurisdiction, suffragan to the archbishop of Santo Domingo and later to the bishop of Cuba.
New Seville remained the capital until 1534, when it was moved to the south side of the island and renamed Santiago de la Vega (now Spanish Town). Dominican missionaries, under the leadership of Miguel Ramírez, OP (1527–35), constructed a church under the patronage of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and a monastery dedicated to St. Dominic in Santiago de la Vega sometime after 1534. Franciscans and Dominicans labored there until British forces captured Jamaica on May 10, 1655.
From the advent of Cromwellian forces in 1655 to James II, Jamaica became a base for pirates; slaves were imported from Africa to work the flourishing sugar cane plantations and the Church was proscribed. James II appointed Thomas Churchill as chaplain to his majesty's subjects. Churchill arrived in January of 1687 (O.S.; 1688 N.S.), remained until August and established four parishes, out of which two are known: Spanish Town and Port Royal. During Churchill's pastorate the question of jurisdiction was raised by James Castillo, a Spanish layman, who claimed that Churchill had no faculties to work in Jamaica because ecclesiastically the island was still under the bishop of Cuba. This controversy terminated upon the accession to the English throne of William and Mary, when again the Church was proscribed.
Revival of Catholicism. In 1792 Spanish merchants residing in Kingston petitioned the government for a priest. Their petition was granted and the vicar apostolic of the London District, under whose jurisdiction the colony fell, sent Anthony Quigly, a Recollect. Quigly served in Kingston among the resident Spaniards and a few English Catholics, and in 1793 French refugees from Haiti augmented the tiny congregation. Upon Quigly's death in 1799 William LeCun, OP, a Haitian refugee, became pastor. At LeCun's death in 1807, the congregation was left without a single priest in all of Jamaica. Don Carlos Esteiro, a layman, persuaded Augustinian missionary Juan Jacinto Rodriquez de Araújo to emigrate from Veracruz, Mexico, whereupon he acted as pastor from 1808
to 1824. In 1820 Benito Fernández, OFM, a refugee from New Granada, sought asylum in Jamaica and, when Araújo departed for Lisbon in 1824, he was chosen pastor. In order to remain in the colony, Fernández was granted release from his religious vows in August of 1828.
On Jan. 10, 1837, Jamaica, which had by now been transferred from London to the jurisdiction of Trinidad, was raised to the status of a separate vicariate and Fernández was appointed the first vicar apostolic, with his area of influence comprising of Jamaica, British Honduras and the Bahamas. In 1838, during Fernández' pastorate, slavery was finally abolished from the island, allowing many Africans who had fled to the hills to enter Jamaican society. Unsatisfactory emigré priests, one of whom eventually created a schism, led Fernández to petition the Holy See for religious missionaries. Two Jesuits, William Cotham, an Englishman, and James E. Dupeyron, a Frenchman, arrived in December of 1837. Upon Fernández' death, Dupeyron became vicar apostolic, and the colony became a mission of the English Province of the Society of Jesus. For 22 years Dupeyron visited Catholics scattered throughout the island several times a year. Previous to this the Church had confined her activity to the Kingston area owing to a scarcity of priests.
In 1861 J. Sidney Woollett, SJ, replaced Dupeyron as missionary to the interior and in 1870 he acquired a residence near Montego Bay. Woollett served the Catholics of the interior for 33 years. Three other well-known missionaries labored in Jamaica at this time: Joseph Dupont, in whose memory a monument was erected in Kingston's public square (the Parade), in appreciation of 40 years of service to the needy of every creed; Frederick Hathaway, SJ, a convert who spent much of his missionary life teaching native children the elements of reading and writing; and Manuel Ignacio El Santa Cruz y Loydi, a secular priest of Carlist War fame, who spent 14 years in the difficult missions of the mountains. Three American missionaries were also notable: Joseph F. Ford, SJ, who pioneered in the rural areas; M. Oliver Semmes, SJ, whose work among the needy for more than 30 years identified the Church with the poor; and Leo T. Butler, SJ, who worked for 40 years in the field of education and in the conversion of the Chinese.
The Modern Church. On Feb. 29, 1956, the vicariate of Jamaica became the diocese of Kingston, and Vicar Apostolic John J. McEleney, SJ, became the first bishop. At this point the Church became involved with a number of social programs. A diocesan seminary, with excellent courses in the humanities and philosophy, was opened to foster vocations among native Jamaicans. Charitable Institutions included "Alpha," named for the Kingston estate where Jessie Ripoll opened an orphanage in 1880. Beginning with only one child, by the mid-20th century this institution was home to over 400 children and was staffed by the Sisters of Mercy. The St. Vincent de Paul society, established in 1904, funded the Ozanam Home for the Aged. The Holy Trinity Cathedral Mens' Sodality began the island's first credit union in 1941, and the movement quickly spread to hundreds of credit unions, which built on the solid foundation of an intensive educational program in the principles and technique of operation. Kingston was made an archdiocese in 1967.
Jamaica remained an English possession until Aug. 6, 1962, when it became independent within the framework of the Commonwealth of Nations. Unfortunately, the region's economy suffered under the new socialist government, sparking violence as the tourist traffic it relied on lessened. The 1980s ushered in a conservative government, but social instability continued. By the 1990s the island's continued economic woes sparked outbreaks of violence, particularly during the 1994 elections. The continued violence and corruption prompted Church leaders to speak out against government economic policies that contained cutbacks in social services. The Church also attempted to increase food production by encouraging the use of government land for agriculture. Pope John Paul II visited the island in 1993.
Into the 21st Century. By 2000 there were 79 parishes tended by 55 diocesan and 45 religious priests. Other religious included approximately 12 brothers and 190 sisters, many of whom administered the island's 50 primary and 20 secondary schools. The Church remained one of several minority churches in a predominately Protestant country that featured a proliferation of small sects. Relations among all faiths were amicable. In 1999 Jamaica's bishops held a day of repentance on October 17, to publicly apologize for the Church's toleration of slavery during the 16th and 17th century.
Bibliography: f. morales padron, Jamaica española (Seville 1952). Catholic Directory of the British Caribbean (Kingston, Jamaica 1958–).
[f. j. osborne/eds.]
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