The Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis is home to seven (7) Catholic Churches – four in St. Kitts (Immaculate Conception Co-Cathedral; Holy Family; St. Joseph; and Sacred Heart); and three in Nevis (St. Theresa; Immaculate Heart of Mary; and St. John de la Salle).
The celebration of the Golden Jubilee of the Diocese of St. John’s-Basseterre is an occasion for us, the Catholic congregation in St. Kitts and Nevis, to be grateful to God and rejoice on reaching this milestone; to reminisce on the evolution of our Parishes, the dedication, commitment and contributions of our many Priests and religious sisters who served in our Parishes over the years; as well as on our achievements and contributions to the Diocese. It is also an opportunity for us, as we embrace the future, to envision new ways to foster, promote and witness to our faith in this fast changing world environment.
The roots of Catholicism in St. Kitts and Nevis go as far back as the early 17th century, following the island’s colonization in 1623 by the English Captain Thomas Warner. Shortly after, he was joined on the island by a party of French colonists, headed by the famous D’Esnambuc who established Catholicism, the national religion of France, with the moral support of Cardinal Richelieu, founder of the “French Company of the Antilles”.
The Catholic Church in St. Kitts flourished during its first sixty-seven years, from 1635 to 1702. At the beginning of the 1700’s, however, Catholicism was proscribed by the English when they secured virtual control of the whole of St. Kitts, and became almost extinct for over one hundred and fifty years. Catholicism was revived, however, following the arrival of several hundred Portuguese from the island of Madeira. These, together with a few Catholic families from the neighbouring islands of St. Maarten and St. Bartholomew, who had already made their home in St. Kitts, formed a sufficient number of Catholics to warrant the appointment of a resident Priest and the establishment of a permanent Parish.
Building of our Churches, Presbytery, Convent and Schools
The Old Church
The first Priest to arrive and work in St. Kitts was the Rev. Fr. Hugh MacShane, who served from 1846 to 1851. He was succeeded by Fr. John Taaffle (serving from 1851-52). They along with their successors focused on the erection of the church in Basseterre which took more than 12 years to construct, partly due to lack of funds. The Church was completed during Father Philip Lynch’s term of office, officially appointed in July 1858 as the first Parish Priest of St. Kitts and of the three-island Parish of St. Kitts, Montserrat and Antigua. He took up residency in St. Kitts, but there being no Presbytery, he was invited to stay with Mr. Emile S. Delisle from whom he received free board and lodging. Divine Service was held in a private home on Liverpool Row.
In 1860 Fr. J.G. van Os succeeded Fr. Lynch. The Church was completed, but many immigrants were scattered over the entire island and consequently not within an easy reach of the Pastor. Fr. Os therefore asked for and obtained from the Bishop permission to say Holy Mass and administer the Sacraments in private homes, in case of necessity, on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Soon the happy results of his zeal were evident, but his health suffered and he was transferred. Fr. Patrick Smyth, who succeeded him in June 1862, secured two properties in 1863, north and south of the Church, on which to build a Presbytery and a Convent – where the present Presbytery and the Parish Centre now stand.
Photo of the Old Catholic Church and the Presbytery
The Presbytery, the Convent and the School
In January 1864 Fr. John Molly arrived as Parish Priest and started to build the Presbytery and a school on the newly acquired lands. The Presbytery was ready for occupation in late 1867. The school which he built, however, was forced to close in 1872 due to lack of funds. Fr. Molly served as Parish Priest until April 1874 after handing over the Parish to Rev. Kock because of illness.
Between 1874 and 1884 no fewer than nine different Priests ministered to the Catholics of St. Kitts. In 1884 Fr. Peter Smyth came, and his ministry lasted for nearly 20 years, during which time he accomplished outstanding achievements in building churches and acquiring property, creating mission centres and establishing a Convent School. During his period as Parish Priest, the Convent was completed in 1895, and in July 1896 the Convent School opened with four Sisters of Mercy from England and 40 pupils.
Following Fr. Smyth’s departure in 1904, the mission was entrusted to the Belgian Redemptorist Fathers. Fr. Alphonsus Stainforth CSsR,was appointed as the Parish Priest, and Rev. DeRidder as his Curate. Fr. Stainforth brought about improvements and expansion to the church properties in Basseterre and Sandy Point as he was an architect and an organizer. In 1906 he purchased a large property beyond the Presbytery gardens, which he turned into schoolrooms and the garden into a playground. The old schoolroom he made into a Sacristy and Oratory.
Arrival of Religious Sisters and Expansion of Schools
Both the Bishop and the Parish priest worked very hard to secure Nuns to re-open the Convent. In August 1911 they obtained the consent of the Order of the Union of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters arrived on December 5 of that same year. The Convent was re-opened in January 1912, and managed to stay open largely due to the benevolence and generosity of Mr. Joseph Farrara and Mrs. Emanuelle Pistana. In 1913 Rev Fr. Joseph Hermans arrived, and his work with the youth and the various Church Societies was outstanding. Ably assisted by Fr. Gillis, he reinstituted old church societies, established new devotional societies and resumed regular visits to Nevis. In 1916 yet another property was bought, north of and adjoining the Convent. This was used to expand the schools by building new classrooms, and to provide space for a playground.
Building of a New Church – our Present Co-Cathedral
The decade of the 1920s was marked by the building of a new Parish Church in Basseterre, financed in part by collections, fundraising activities including bazaars and concerts, and appeals for donations. In 1925 Fr. Henry Claeys was appointed Vicar and became Parish Priest of St. Kitts. He was a skilled architect and made improvements to the chapel at Old Road and a number of Church buildings, including the one in Basseterre. On 16 January 1927, the walls of the old Church were taken down, as the new Church was being built on the same spot. The work on the new Church started on 17 March 1927, St. Patrick’s Day. In less than two years the Church was completed, under the direction of Fr. Claeys, who was relieved of his pastoral duties in order to devote his time fully to building the new church. The dedication of the new church of the Immaculate Conception took place on 12 December 1928 – the Feast day of the Immaculate Conception.
The Catholic Parishes progressed and other buildings were constructed, including a Parochial School large enough to accommodate 400 to 500 students.
Photo of the new Church, flanked by the Presbytery on the right and the Convent and Parish Center on the left and part of ICCS in the background.
The Redemptorist Fathers from Belgium and Ireland worked in the Parish from 1904 until 1981 and left an indelible mark in St Kitts and Nevis. Their period of service resulted in the recruiting and ordination of two local Redemptorists – Fr. Mark Owen, CSsR, and Br. George Armoogam, CSsR, both presently abroad. One of the well-known and remembered Redemptorist Priests who served for 25 years (from 1956 until 1981) was Fr. John Bergmans CSsR. The other priest, Fr. Julius van den Berghs CSsR, who served as assistant Priest, worked very hard with the choirs and made the Immaculate Conception Choir famous in the Leeward Islands and beyond.
IMMACULATE CONCEPTION CHURCH IN THE NEWLY FORMED DIOCESE
On 16 January 1971 St. Kitts and Nevis became a part of the newly formed Diocese – the Diocese of St. John’s – comprising Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, and the British Virgin Islands. Prior to that date, St. Kitts and Nevis, together with other Leeward Islands, was a part of the Diocese of Roseau (Dominica).
The Most Rev. Joseph Bowers, SVD, native of Dominica, became bishop of the Diocese of St. Johns (in Antigua). He was instrumental in recruiting confreres of the Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) to help in the Diocese and to carry out the work of evangelization, following a shortage of Priests after the departure of the Belgian Missionaries.
In October 1981 the Most Rev. Donald Reece D.D from Jamaica became bishop of the Diocese, on the retirement of the Most Rev. Joseph Bowers. During that year Antigua and Barbuda gained their independence from Great Britain, followed by St. Kitts and Nevis two years later in September 1983. This signaled the need for both capitals of the two independent countries to have their own Cathedral. In Antigua a new Cathedral was under construction in the capital, St. John’s. Consequently, the church of the Immaculate Conception was elevated to the rank of the Co-Cathedral.
Under the very dynamic leadership of Bishop Donald J. Reece many of the reforms of the Vatican II were implemented and the laity assumed many responsibilities, including the administration of the Catholic schools and the work of catechists which, before, was largely reserved to religious sisters and priests. A special Celebration for Bishop Reece’s Silver Jubilee was held at the Immaculate Conception Co-Cathedral on 11 September 2007.
DIVINE WORSHIP MISSIONARIES
The Divine Word Missionaries showed a great love for the Church and an appreciation of the task of evangelization. This was evident by the presence and increase in the number of Missionary Priests and Brothers, even after Diocesan Bishop Donald J. Reece and other Bishops succeeded Bishop Bowers.
Fr. Jacques Nyssen, SVD, one of the first to answer the call for help, arrived in 1982 and set about repairing the Immaculate Conception Co-Cathedral, Presbytery and Convent, which at the time served as a House of Formation for those interested in priestly and religious Vocations. Other churches and presbyteries on the island received a ‘face-lift’, thanks to the indefatigable work of Fr. Nyssen. His interest was not only in repairing structures, but also introduced many lay ministries and apostolates which exist till today. He established the first Parish Pastoral Council. He also sought to help the parishioners to build relationships with the poor and needy through the establishment of the first Conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in early 1983, with Mrs. Agnes Skerritt as the first President. It was also under his leadership that the ministry of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist was established, with Mr. Kenneth Martin and Mr. Ian Slack as the first two appointed Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist.
From the early 1980’s until 2018 the Parish clergy were from the Society of the Divine Word (SVD), with the exception of Fr. Edward Lawlor and Fr. Gerard Critch, who were ordained priests for the Diocese of St. John’s – Basseterre, and served the Co-Cathedral in the latter part of the 1980s. The Society of the Divine Word have also recruited vocations in St. Kitts & Nevis, among whom was Fr Stanley Farier, SVD.
Among the recent priests, two were long-serving Priests who worked in the Parish for nine years. The first, Fr. Frank Power, SVD, worked as the Parish Priest from 1991 to 2000. Under his leadership some new lay ministries and groups were established, including the Catholic Association of Women in Action (CAWA); and the Formation House, the former Convent, was renovated and transformed into the Parish Center. He introduced the annual Pentecost Mass and fellowship at Brimstone Hill, at which parishioners from all three Parishes in St. Kitts – the Co-Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Basseterre, Sacred Heart Parish in Sandy Point /Old Road, and Holy Family Parish in Molineux, came together to worship and fellowship. He was instrumental in organising the purchase of a Church bus to transport parishioners who were unable to attend Mass due to lack of transport; and in introducing steel pan music at Mass, thus encouraging youth participation and bringing a wonderful addition and local expression to the celebrations of the Eucharist.
Fr. Larry Finnegan, SVD, succeeded Fr. Frank in 2000 and served for three years. During his tenure he continued to fan the flame of faith and played a big role in the raising of funds for the renovation of the Presbytery. He was also involved in early discussions with the Most Rev. Bishop Reece and the benefactors of the ICCS (Daniel Mezzalingua and family) in relation to the merger of the two schools – the St. Joseph School and the St. Theresa’s Convent School. These schools experienced persistent financial challenges following the departure in 1981 of the Redemptorists, who heavily subsidized the schools.
Fr. Bernard Latus, SVD, the other long-serving Priest (serving for 9 years from 2003-12), succeeded Father Larry. Among the many highlights of his Ministry were oversight of the rebuilding of the Presbytery in 2006, ensuring that the former façade was retained; the merging of the two schools into a Catholic School, and the naming and opening of the School –the Immaculate Conception Catholic School on 12 December 2010. He also focused his efforts on the spiritual development of his flock by organizing among other activities, Biblical studies; a weekly Holy Hour and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; adult faith formation programme; Spanish Masses for the Hispanic community; youth development programmes including A YouthRap Retreat, the introduction of a Children’s Mass when there is a fifth Sunday of any month, at which the children participate in the whole Mass as Alter Servers, Lectors, Animator, choir member, or ushers. He was very energetic and fearless as he ventured out into the streets in Basseterre and nearby villages to evangelise in areas known to be plagued by fear and violence, attributed to gangs. During his tenure he was an active member of the St. Kitts Christian Council (SKCC), and a frequent guest on the local radio station (WINFM) discussing aspects of the Catholic faith and other topical issues especially on “Church Calling” – a local radio programme hosted by theSKCC
In 2007 the Most Re. Donald Reece D.D was appointed Archbishop of Kingston Jamaica. This left a void, as the Diocese was without a resident Bishop. The Most Rev. Bishop Gabriel Malzaire of the Diocese of Roseau, Dominica, was then appointed Apostolic Administrator for St John’s-Basseterre and served in that capacity from October 2007 until November 2011. It was during the Most Rev. Bishop Malzaire’s term of office and Father Bernard as Parish Priest, that the Co-Cathedral celebrated 150 years as a Parish. The celebrations culminated in December 2008 with a special 150th Anniversary Awards Dinner on Saturday, 6 December at the Royal St. Kitts Hotel, and the Jubilee Eucharist, on 8 December – the Feast day of the Immaculate Conception.
In November 2011, the Most Rev. Bishop Kenneth Richards was appointed Bishop of St. John’s-Basseterre and served in that capacity until April 2016 when he left to take up his appointment as Metropolitan Archbishop of Kingston in Jamaica. He was succeeded by Bishop Robert Llanos, who was appointed as Apostolic Administrator to the Diocese of St. John’s-Basseterre. In December 2018 the Most Reverend Robert A Llanos was appointed as Bishop of the Diocese of St John’s-Basseterre and installed in February 2019 at the Holy Family Cathedral, St. John’s.
Father Manuel Antao, who succeeded Father Bernard in 2012, served under both Bishop Richards and Bishop Llanos. During his tenure as Parish Priest, he devoted special attention to raising the level of reverence and respect in the Church, as it is his view that the Church is not just an historic building but a sacred place to worship God. He was dedicated to Catholic education among children and youth, as well as faith formation for adults, and along with curate Fr George Aggar SVD, baptized and welcomed many new members – both children and adults. He spearheaded the renovation of the Co-Cathedral which included re-roofing of the building, repainting the interior of the Church, re-tiling and installing new pews, as well as redesigning the Sanctuary to meet the standard of worship in the 21st century.
Another area of Fr. Manuel’s focus was on maintaining sustainability of the Immaculate Conception Catholic School, in collaboration with the School Board. He was also instrumental in raising the necessary funding and assistance to build the Immaculate Conception Co-Cathedral Auditorium, which was blessed on 5 August 2018 and provides seating for roughly 400 people. During Father Manuel’s tenure he was assisted by Father George Agger, SVD, who served in the Church (including the Holy Family Parish), the School and the community, and was spiritual Adviser to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul – Immaculate Conception Co-Cathedral Conference. Fr. George left on 12 August 2018 to take up a new position in Ireland.
The departure of Father Manuel and Fr. George in August 2018 signaled the end of service to the Co-Cathedral by SVDs, almost 50 years after the arrival of the first SVD – Fr. Jack Nyssen in 1982. Fr. Lawrence Malama, Diocesan Priest, who succeeded Fr. Manuel, assumed full responsibility for both the Immaculate Conception Co-Cathedral and the Holy Family Parishes, as well as overseeing the ICCS, in collaboration with the School Board. Since his appointment as Parish Priest he, along with the Parish Council, spearheaded the hosting of the 2019 Catholic Youth Jamboree – a biannual event to help young people get in touch with their faith, and form bonds with their spiritual brothers and sisters in the diocese. The Youth Jamboree was held at the ICCS from 13 to 22 July 2019 under the theme “Young People Building a Civilization of Love”. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic at the start of the New Year 2020 has posed some challenges as churches had to be closed and Masses suspended for almost three months from the beginning of April, in accordance with the COVID-19 regulations. On reopening of the Churches, some adjustments were made to the times and frequency of Masses held on Sundays at both the Immaculate Conception Co-Cathedral, and the Holy Family Church to accommodate the COVID-19 restrictions on physical and social distancing.
The Merger of the Catholic Schools and Naming of New School
Since the late 1890s there were two schools – St. Theresa’s Convent School and St. Joseph’s Primary School. These operated side by side at the back of the Church and Presbytery, separated only by a gate between them. In the distant past the schools were administered by successive congregations of Religious Sisters. The St. Theresa’s Convent School was fully private, while the St. Joseph’s Primary School was managed by Sisters, financed partly by the Parish, and subsidised by the government until the late 1980s. The Redemptorists also heavily subsidised the school from the early 1900s until their departure in 1981.
In the middle to late 1970s when the Religious Sisters (Daughters of Jesus) left, the schools had to be managed locally. A Catholic School Board was established – the first of its kind – to assist the Parish Priests in running the schools. Both schools became Diocesan schools in the early 1980s, giving Bishop Donald Reece and the Diocesan Education Commission a direct influence in the appointment of principals, and in administering the schools. It was during that time that the merger of the two schools was initially considered. In 1996 Bishop Reece appointed Sr. Mary Andrew of the newly arrived Diocesan Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help of Jamaica to perform the function of Coordinating for both schools with the intention of merging the two Catholic schools in the not too distant future. Three Sisters of that congregation – Sr. Mary Andrew Campbell, Sr. Jacqueline Folkes and Sr. Mary Collette Graham – performed the role of Coordinating Principal until they left in 2005.
In 2003 Mr. Daniel Mezzalingua and his family, who owned a business in St. Kitts, offered to assist the school to prevent its collapse, as the fiscal position of the schools, particularly the St. Theresa’s Convent School deteriorated. Mr. Mezzalingua, a well-respected Catholic Philanthropist who has helped many Catholic schools in the USA, proposed the total rebuilding of the schools, on condition that they become one school based on logistical, financial and space considerations. The Board agreed to the proposal, as the idea of a merger had already been considered, and was given responsibility for naming the school. Mr. Mezzalingua funded the building of the school, as well many small projects, including the construction and furnishing of a Resource Center, which was named after his daughter Laura Mezzalingua, now deceased.
On Sunday, 12 December 2010, following the celebration of the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception Co-Cathedral, a Eucharistic and Opening Ceremony of the Immaculate Conception Catholic School (ICCS) was held in the Co-Cathedral. The Presider was Most Rev. Gabriel Malzaire; Fr. Bernard Latus and Fr. Jan Pastuszczak were Concelebrants. Mr. Mezzalingua and family were among the dignitaries in attendance. At that ceremony Most Rev. Gabriel Malzaire blessed the ICCS symbols (Banner, Flag, Mission and Logo).
Some Sisters, Brothers, Clergy who Served in the Catholic Schools
Many Sisters and Brothers who served in the Parish dedicated their lives to building the Kingdom of God, and worked unceasingly in the Church, schools and community to teach the Christian faith and influence lives. The following are some of the Kittitians who committed themselves to the religious life; Deacon James Matthew; Sr. Barbara White of the Franciscan Missionaries of Jamaica; Sr. Pearline Mussenden, a Catholic convert, former teacher of the St. Joseph’s Primary School, and now a Secular Sister of Our Lady of the Way, Jamaica Unit. Mrs. Eileen Grey, a former Principal of the St. Theresa’s Convent School and Ms. Patricia Lake, a former teacher of that school, were also Catholic converts.
The Sisters of St. Martha came to St. Kitts in August 1986 and left in August 2008. Over the twenty-one years, thirteen sisters served in St. Kitts, in the areas of education, religious education, community health and parish pastoral care. Some of the programs in which they were involved included: community health working from a clinic that was set up behind the church, as well as visiting homes; education, teaching regular classes in the school and religious education classes; peacemaker – An after-school activity for students from grade 7-12 begun by Sister Theresa Parker and Patrice Mills to teach the young people how to make peace. They worked together on clean-up projects and travelled to other islands. They also provided Religious education including;
- Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) – a program to welcome new members into the Catholic Church.
- Ministry Formation Program – a 2 year program to develop leadership among the laity, by giving them a foundation in prayer, scripture, the sacraments and church documents.
- Development of catechists: Sister Brendalee Boisvert visited the islands in the diocese to train and support catechists.
Fr. Jan Pastuszczak worked in the Catholic schools. He taught computer science to the students in the Theresa’s. Primary sections of both schools; and was involved in the religious education programme at St.
Four Sisters of The Handmaids of Christ, from Goa, India, arrived in 2013 to staff and administer the ICCS. They completed their mission in 2018 and were succeeded by three Sisters of “The Sisters of Jesus the Saviour” who came from Nigeria to administer the ICCS.
Sisters of the Handmaids of Christ – Back row L to R- Sr. Ancy Aguiar, Sr. Xaverita Fernandes, Sr. Sendra Fernandes. Front Row – Sr. Paloma Martins, Sr. Godwina Pereira, Sr. Rita Frois
Sisters of Jesus the Saviour L to R – Sr. Phidelma Chukwuemeka, Sr. Stephenora Ogbonna, Sr. Martin Rosari Egbujor
- Mr. Vincent Prince – recipient of Papal Award Benemerenti, on 11 March 1979 in recognition of his dedication as organist for 40 years in the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and Co-Cathedral.
- Sir William Walters – conferred with the Knighthood of the Order of St. Gregory on 15 November 1981, for giving selflessly of his time and talent to the building of the Catholic Churches in St. Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla.
- Ms. Elsie Smith – recipient of Papal Award “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” on 23 December 1994 for Church and Pontiff for her commitment to the Catholic Faith.
- Ms. Patricia Lake – recipient of the Papal Medal “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” on 11 February 2007, in recognition of her service and zeal to the Lord
- Ms. Althea Bass, Mr. Kenneth Martin and Mr Ian Slack – recipients of Apostolic blessings, on 26 August 2018, invoking through the intercession of the Virgin Mary an abundance of Divine graces.
UNVEILING OF PLAQUE
Below is the Unveiling of Plaque for Mr. Vincent Prince, Organist, and Mr. Basil Henderson, Sacristan, for years of dedicated service to the Immaculate Conception Parish
Outstanding Community Service Award – presented to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul by the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs in December 2018 – in recognition of its outstanding devotion and excellent service to the public good, and for significant, demonstrable and direct contributions to the society’s well-being.
L-R Fr. Lawrence, Elizabeth Tempro (Secretary), Agnes Skerritt (First President), Sheila Williams (current President)
- Wingrove Archibald – celebrating 25 years as bus driver for our parishioners to and from Church and other parish events – February 2018
- Sr. Pearline Mussenden – celebrating 25 years as a Secular Sister (August 2018). Sr. Pearline was a former teacher at the St. Joseph’s Primary School. She was awarded the Medal of Honour in the field of Education on 19 September 2020, the 37th Anniversary of Independence for St. Kitts and Nevis.