The Inception of St. Gerard’s Roman Catholic Church – Anguilla

In 1966 a small, picturesque, newly built Catholic church, was dedicated to St. Gerard.   It was designed and constructed by Belgian priest, Fr. Strikers.  An account of the construction of St. Gerard’s church according to Bernadette Watty Richardson, (Dolly), daughter of Marthe Donat Watty  – one of the early parishioners of St. Gerard’s, is as follows: “In the sixties the stone-walled church was erected. Fr. Roberge and Father Strikers were very much involved with it. We enjoyed going to the beaches and gathering stones for the front of the church. Alphonse and Frenchie who were natives from Antigua were the builders.”

The local stones and rocks, very intricately locked together, created the walls while the colourful stained glass windows, creatively set over the front door and at the back of the altar, complete this unique structure called,  St. Gerard’s Roman Catholic Church. 

The church was built at Wall Blake next to the Wall Blake House, a lovely property stretching across several acres of land which was generously donated a few years earlier, by Miss Marie Lake, a native of Anguilla who had converted to the Catholic Faith. 

Dolly’s account notes that back then, while there were not many Catholic families, there was a church bus which went about collecting parishioners from mainly the South Hill and Blowing Point areas.

The Impact of the Local People on the Catholic Church

After Ms Paris left the Island church services were held once every six months and later once a month.  It was quickly after that, that Wallblake house was given to the church. During that time, three large prominent families from the George Hill and Long Ground areas sadly left the church and joined the Baptist faith because of the lack of a permanent Priest. Mrs Marthe Donat Watty kept the church doors open every Sunday in the absence of a Priest. She held the service and Sunday school . To ensure that the children came to church and attended Sunday school she baked sticky buns and presented them to the children after Sunday school. She also organized the annual church picnic and with the help of the late Mr. Christopher Romney encouraged the attendance of the Blowing Point Sea scouts to service and participate in church activities. Mr Romney though a strong Methodist assisted the church in many ways during that time especially by providing transportation for members to attend service or activities. He used his truck. In the late 60’s (69/70), Father Bennet an Irish Priest acquired a bus for the church to transport members to church

Request for Priests

In the early 1970’s, Six Divine Word Missionaries were assigned to the Caribbean at the request of the then Bishop of St. John’s, Bishop Bowers. Many of the priests were stationed in Antigua.  The first resident priest in Anguilla was Father Roberge followed by Father Bennet.

However, whenever a priest was not available in Anguilla, the laity in Anguilla or priests and sisters from other islands of the diocese, conducted the service.  This sharing of the laity between Anguilla and the other islands has been documented in the following account provided by Albert Richardson, husband of the late Ilene Richardson (nee Miss Parris) and her daughters, Theresa Richardson and Patricia Hodge.

Ilene Agnita Richardson (nee Parris) – Born 11th September 1930

Ilene (Irene) Richardson (AKA Miss Parris) travelled to Anguilla around 1950.  She was sent by the Catholic Church in St. Kitts, where she was in the Convent School teaching and working with the church.

Ilene lived in a house in the Valley, which belonged to the Supasad’s.  There were not any Catholic churches on the island and Ilene and the priest Father Vandenburg used to hold church in this little house that the Supasad’s used to live in below Lucas Wilson’s.  

The priest who celebrated mass at the church was not the resident priest, but served St. Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla.  If he was not there, Ilene would ask a priest from St. Maarten to celebrate mass.

The priest from St. Kitts would travel to Anguilla by a small private plane, owned by a gentleman living in Flat Island and if Ilene had to go to St. Kitts, he would take her there along with the priest.  They would then fly to Saint Barthélemy (St. Barts), to hold service.

The church provided Ilene a moped to go around and find Catholics and she would invite them to church.  Also, for those who wanted to join the Catholic faith, Ilene invited them to attend Catechism classes.  There were so many members who wanted to go to church who did not have their own transport, so Ilene would hire a bus to take them to church and return them to their homes.  Ilene used to hold Sunday school on the fields in Blowing Point. 

Ilene’s husband Albert Richardson, remembers Ilene conducting a funeral in Anguilla in the absence of a priest on the Island.  The Catholic Church confirmed that she had the power to do so. She was able to give the sacrament to the catholic congregation.

Known as Miss Paris, those who knew her at this time, described her as very serious, strict and very principled; everything had to be done right.  Anita Parris, who still lives in Anguilla, knew Ilene at this time, and shared that Ilene used to work with the priest and undertook duties such as sewing and coordination of other tasks.

Ilene used to hold catechism classes in Wall Blake house.  At that time there was a group of small houses and different buildings, which were used for schooling, Sunday school and houses for people to stay in.  Ilene used to also lead the church choir.

While she was yet young, Patricia Beard who currently lives in Anguilla, remembers Ilene who, operated like a Nun or sister in the Church.  Mrs Beard remembers that she carried out all the duties of a priest when the priest was not there.

In the very early years Monica Hodge and her family along with Marthe Donat Watty and her family assisted with the cleaning and care of the church. Later on, the visiting priests, were housed and taken care of by Audrey Brooks, Jane Rogers, and Babs Carty.   Taking care also meant cleaning the Church, polishing the brass tabernacle, polishing the wooden pews, and all aspects of hospitality including the provision of meals.  The late Murielle Schleifler  who did a tremendous amount of secretarial work for the church,  and Josephine Gumbs also ensured that the visiting or residing clergy were always well taken care of.  These faithful Catholic treasures also had one commonality – they served their church in every capacity, giving selflessly.     

After Bishop Bowers resignation on March 28, 1981, Pope John Paul II appointed Father Donald Reece as Bishop on 17 July 1981.  This heralded a new period in the life of the Diocese, which came to be known as the Diocese of St. John’s-Basseterre, after Fr. Donald Reece’s ordination as Bishop on October 8 1981. 

Bishop Reece set about trying to have a priest regularly located in Anguilla.   In February 1984, he successfully arranged for Fr John Valentine, a veteran missionary from India to take up residence in Anguilla. Fr Valentine served as pastor until his death on July 9, 1986.  He is interred in the St. Gerard’s Catholic cemetery. Following his death, Fr John Crozier, an elderly retired diocesan priest from Maine, was sent to assist in Anguilla. While his service was short-lived, due to his death, he made an impact on the Catholic community. 

Under Bishop Donald Reece’s vision, local lay leadership and church ministries developed.  The parish became alive with organised religious education classes, St. Vincent de Paul meetings, youth group activities, choir practices, visitations to the sick and shut-ins, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.   Bishop Reece also initiated the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and this decision took into consideration the issue of the lack of clergy in Anguilla.   

Other important teams such as the Liturgical, Hospitality, Finance, and Maintenance Committees    were formed to ensure the effective functioning of St. Gerard’s church. The concept of having a shared responsibility was brought to the fore as the Parish Pastoral Council, presided over by the priest was introduced.  This allowed for the election of members of the parish community to assist in pastoral planning, developing pastoral programmes, improving pastoral services, and evaluating the effectiveness of the various programmes and services.  

Succeeding Fr Crozier  as parish priest, was Fr. Jim McNulty, who had been ordained by Bishop Donald Reece.  Sadly, in January 1993, after four years of dedicated pastoral service to St.Gerard’s, Fr Jim succumbed to heart disease after undergoing heart surgery in New York.  ,  Fr. Bernard Latus, SVD  was then assigned to St. Gerard’s for several months. Bishop Reece then delegated Fr George Theruvapuzha  who served for  about a year and he was later succeeded by Fr Ed Herberger, SVD who departed this life on February 9, 2012 after many years of immeasurable service to Montserrat, Jamaica and Anguilla.  Fr Digno  assumed the role of pastor after Fr Edward’s departure.   Two years later he was succeeded  by Fr Paul Zoch,  who happily remained with St Gerard’s for 9 years.  After being assigned to the BVI in 2017, the  current priest of St.Gerard’s, Fr, Xuan Ho took charge of the parish.

Fr Edward Herberger – Building St. Gerard’s

Fr. Ed, as he was affectionately called by the St. Gerard’s church community, remained in Anguilla for 10 years before his final departure to the USA.    He was a master organiser and had already been intimately involved in the construction of the church in Montserrat.  He was commissioned to organise the building of a new Presbytery where priests and other clergy would stay during their visits to the island.  This construction began in 1995 and faced the challenge of Hurricane Luis but was eventually completed in 1998.   It was hoped that St Gerard’s would have visiting Sisters from Africa, and other visitors of interest to the parish and so two guest rooms were also constructed. 

Upon seeing the growth of the St. Gerard’s community, Fr Ed had a dream of a new and bigger church.  He therefore set about designing a small cardboard model of his vision.  In 2005-2006 the ground breaking ceremony was held with Bishop Reece’s blessings.   Under the watchful eye of the contractor, Tony Sheehy and LB Associates, this dream became a reality when the new church was completed and then dedicated on Oct. 19, 2008.   Present at the dedication ceremony were Bishop Malzaire, Fr. Ed and Fr. Digno.

St Gerard’s owes a debt of gratitude to all parishioners who contributed to the construction of this most beautiful edifice.  Special thanks must be extended to the contractor, the workmen and the late Mr Leandro  Rizzuto and Mr Peter O Connor.

 Fr Pawel Czoch  ensured that the various pastoral ministries continued to be fully functional and he developed a very close working relationship with the Christian Council and clergy from the various Christian faiths.  A very charismatic priest, and well known throughout Anguilla, Fr Paul welcomed everyone to church and to the St Gerard’s  Christmas parties. 

Collaborating with the Wider Christian Faith Communities

It has become customary to congregate  with the Anglican and Methodist churches to celebrate Palm Sunday and Holy Week.  After a brief introduction, prayers and the appropriate scripture readings would be done by the ministers and a homily would follow.  On Palm Sunday the various congregations would process through the streets,  joyfully singing en route to their respective  churches.

The yearly organised Lenten Retreats also gives the opportunity to spend quality time in prayer and contemplation, and rekindles and deepens one’s relationship with God.

Sacramental Celebrations  at St Gerard’s

The celebration of the sacraments plays an important role in the lives of all Catholics and each celebration brings its special blessings to the congregants.

Sacrament of Baptism of Bre Webster Bishop Donald Reece conferring the Sacrament of Confirmation

Sacrament of Marriage  Juliet Permuy & Husband

Wallblake House

In Anguilla, the visiting and residential priests stayed in the Wallblake House which was built in 1781.  It is the oldest and only surviving plantation house in Anguilla. Sunday school, youth activities, and social events like the Anguilla Flower and Garden Show all took place in its complex of buildings which included a kitchen, stable and workers quarters.                                                                                                                                                                                      

Wallblake house has been used as a major tourism attraction through the signing of a lease on Saturday May 28, 2016 between the Government of Anguilla and the Catholic church representatives Bishop Kenneth Richards, Fr. Pawel Czoch SVD, and the executive of the original management committee, Marjorie Mc Clean and Fiona Curtis.  Back in 1977 the building also served as the office of the Anguilla Tourist Board and the centre of the promotion and marketing of the island as a destination.

Wallblake House is one of the ten heritage houses in The Valley.   The Wallblake Trust gained the support of the Catholic Church, many local enthusiasts and NGOS. The Heritage Trail Committee has raised the status of this house consequent to an agreement between the Wallblake Trust and the Anguilla Heritage Trail.  It is Anguilla’s only surviving plantation house.

The main building, with all its historic trappings, is now a museum for an array of artifacts reflecting traditional furniture, lifestyles and customs in Anguilla – as well as glimpses of industry such as cotton cultivation, salt production, garment-making and decoration.

St. Vincent De Paul

The Saint Vincent de Paul Society, the social arm of the Church, reaches out to the poor by providing them with food and clothing.  St Gerard’s Conference was formed in 2001 under the guidance of Mary Rose Knight.  This conference was well-established and met once a week, with their Spiritual Director,  Fr Edward Herberger.  The members, are dedicated to working with the elderly, shut-ins, the less-fortunate and the group’s own family members.  Many prayer meetings, conferences and Synods were held over the years to strengthen the work of the laity involved in the SVP Society.

Jillian Sheehy, who later became the president, attended three observation assemblies, followed by the late Lady Josephine Gumbs, who assumed the position of Secretary with Mrs Murielle Owen  as Treasurer.  Various Prayer meetings were held from time to time and members had the opportunity to attend various conferences and Synods.

Fr Edward Herberger

The St. Gerard’s Catechetical Programme

In the early 70’s, organising  Sunday School, choir practices  altar servers and other ministries were led by the adults of the parish. However, by the period just preceding,  1985, St. Gerard’s did not have a formal Sunday School structure, so many persons just pitched in and taught under the trees as best they could.  This would entail rounding up the few Catholic children from around the island to get them there on a Saturday morning.  As faith-building is reliant on teaching by word and by example, a number of persons assisted in any way they could.  Mrs. Hazel Parsons and Mrs. Ketter, were two such ladies who volunteered their time and expertise in helping to build our faith community and also  Patricia Marks and  Monica Denning.   

Under Bishop’s Reece’s inspiration,  the Catechetical programme of St Gerard’s Roman Catholic church was more formalized.  The foundation was laid by the time Fr Jim McNulty assumed the role of pastor of St. Gerard’s. With his guidance, the catechetical formation of the children and young people of St. Gerard’s were given more prominence, and this saw catechetical teachers of the Diocese of St John’s- Basseterre meeting yearly for planning and faith building purposes at the Bishop’s house in Antigua.   This led to a well-organised catechetical programme over the years, with Sunday religious classes held weekly, resulting in the children and young people of St Gerard’s strongly developing their faith, and receiving the sacraments of First Holy Communion and Confirmation. 

Today, the programme continues and recognition must be given to all the catechists over the years who have been teaching the Faith of the Church by both word and example. We remember Dorothy Weardon, the late Teachers Josephine Hodge, Rosetta Richardson (Doy) and Nurse Doreen James for their roles in carrying on the Faith.  We also recognise Marguerite Bryan, Monica Hodge, the Carty sisters – Jillian, Marjorie, Carolyn and Helen, Londrina Hughes, Nadine Edwards and Sandra York  Gumbs for the faithful service  given to the continuation    

St. Gerard’s Youth Organisation

In similar manner, the St Gerard’s Youth Group, designed to empower the young people to live as disciples of Christ, while responsibly participating in their faith community and fostering their total personal and spiri  tual growth, was institutionalized in 1990.  Many training and faith building opportunities were afforded to the youth leaders regionally and internationally and through Bishop Reece’s efforts, Sr Carol-Ann Warnke, efficiently coordinated all the youth activities and ensured that training programmes were developed and strong communication links were established among the youth leaders of the diocese.  Today, this solid foundation continues to bear fruits, as the youth of St. Gerard’s continuously demonstrates their commitment to and love for their faith.  They are actively involved in a number of church activities including serving as acolytes,  planning their youth Masses, involved in the music ministry and youth choir, visiting the sick and home bound, organising fund raising events and supporting each other in their faith journey.  They have travelled to various island and many went to World Youth Day.

The youth ministry continues to have a solid grounding as Mrs Morvet Thomas, the Diocesan Youth Coordinator, who effectively succeeded Sr Carol-Anne, continues to give her steadfast support and expertise to the young people of the St. John’s-Basseterre Diocese.  The Youth organisation acknowledges the invaluable support and dedication of many persons including the  Youth Coordinator, Sandra York Gumbs, who received a Papal Award in recognition of her service and zeal to the Church in October 2006, the late Doreen James, Denise Calvert, and  Alyson Carty who worked steadfastly to build the organisation.

The sterling contributions of Joan                                  
Clarke and the late Teachers. Josephine Hodge and Leonora Payne, and the present-day commitment of Londrina Hughes and Nadine Edwards along with the support of the St. Gerard’s family and pastors, make this youth St . Gerard’s Youth Group off to Jamboree 2019 in St Kitts group a thriving one.

The Filipino Community

Intent on participating in a more lively Mass, Mrs  Lydia Arambulo Alignay, encouraged the Filipino community to organise a  choir. In January 2007, with accompaniment from a used laptop, the choir was formed under the directorship of Silahis (Sunshine) Guico, daughter of Lydia, and continues to provide a music ministry to this day.  While the economic circumstances on the island plays a role in the Filipino population, the choir members have been steadfast in their service.   

They have also added to the diversified life of St. Gerard’s and have collaborated with the Youth Group to share some of their culture during concerts organised by the young people.   They have also introduced not only the faith community but the wider Anguillian community to their foods and culture during the St Gerard’s Annual Garden Party.      

The Impact of the Laity on St. Gerard’s Catholic Church

From its inception, it has been recognised that there is a mutual interdependence between the priests and the laity at St. Gerard’s .  In the absence of the priests, the laity remained cognizant  that they  were called to continue Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world and be involved in the life, worship and governance of the Church. We give thanks to all who have been a part of the St. Gerard’s family, those who have gone on to be with the Lord and those who continue to serve in the various ministries. 

Among the many parishioners  was  the late Teacher Stephanie Hodge, who recognised that there was a need for an organist in the very early years of the St. Gerard’s church and while she was a member of the Anglican church,  took on the role of organist and served with distinction for many years.  She later went on to receive a Papal Award for long standing service.

St. Gerard’s Annual Garden Party 

In 1983, the St. Gerard’s Annual Garden Party was born.  The garden party was first organized by parishioner, Patricia Baird who recognised that the Catholic priests were living below the standard of other ministers of religion in the community. Those ministers were being paid and their churches demanded tithes while the Catholic priests depended mainly on the small amounts offered during collection.  Some parishioners did assist by paying some of the various bills.  Mrs Baird therefore presented a proposal after mass to the congregation which highlighted the goals and objectives and requested that a budget line be drawn up to cover utilities, food and a monthly stipend for the Priest.  This proposal was accepted and the first garden party made ten thousand dollars with one hundred percent profit.   To this day the goat water that was made by  Etienne and Yolande is remembered.

The Garden Party is now the main fund raiser for the upkeep of the church and the cuisine of as many as 8 different countries are often available for tasting.  The entire church community continues to donate contributions of food  and the wider Anguillian community and overseas guests look forward to this popular  event.  The evening is one of the biggest social events held in Anguilla and many person look forward to this spectacular event.

Annual Women’s Empowerment Conference

Friday June 29th 2018, saw an abundance of Christian women from throughout the Anguilla and across the region convene at the La Vue Conference Room. This was to embark on the first women’s empowering weekend retreat. The event, designed to cut across denominational and religious barriers, under the theme “Come Away With Me”, was spearheaded by Anguilla’s Senior Magistrate, Ms. Ivenia Benjamin, a devout Catholic. By virtue of her fundamental Christian faith, she is a woman of remarkable spiritual conviction who exhibits her devotion to Christ without reluctance or reservation.  In 2019, the 2nd Women’s Empowerment Conference dubbed ‘Arise, Pray, and Soar’ was again successfully held.  Due to the Corona virus pandemic the 2020 Conference took the form of a One Day Prayer and Fasting Retreat. This was held on Saturday August 28th at the Wallblake Conference Centre under the theme, “Watch and Pray for Behold I am with You Always”.

Wallblake Conference Centre

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