History on St Ursula Catholic Church and Catholicism on Virgin Gorda

In 1987 an agreement was launched between the St. Williams Church of Tortola (Fr. Whyte) and the St Mary’s Anglican Church of Virgin Gorda that a Priest will visit on a Sunday and host a Mass for the Catholics on Virgin Gorda in the early afternoon.

The Catholic Faith on Virgin Gorda was started on the porch of the Late Peter Alister and Virginia Leon and was kept alive with many prayer sessions and singing, especially when the late Mr Edgar Hewlett came across from our sister Church St. Williams of Tortola. It was a pleasure for the few residents and tourists to sit in the cool afternoon breeze where you enjoyed a great sermon preached by the Late Fr. Jack Whyte, the parish Priest for St. Williams Church on Tortola.

During this time while Fr Whyte was coming to Virgin Gorda there was a Catholic lady residing on the island who had bought property and was leaving the island. She donated the property to the Catholic Faith on Virgin Gorda to build a church. In 1988 construction began with the donations received from overseas donors. The Architect was Smiths Architectural & Engineering Services of Tortola and the design was done by an Italian named Francioli who was residing on Virgin Gorda at that time.

The Contractor was Clement Caul Construction Company and in 1989 the church was completed. The adjoining Parking lot was built by Leonard & Yates Construction Company Ltd in 1989 and was refurbished in 2013 by Brian Quammie and crew and engineered by Lyndon Massicot. On August 15th, 1989 the St. Ursula Catholic Church was born and blessed and became the eighth (8) Parish in the Catholic Diocese of our region, under the leadership of Bishop Donald Reece.

In 1994 the Church embarked on another venture the construction of the Catholic Community Center which was completed in 1997. The Contractor was Leonard and Yates Construction C. Ltd. and was mostly financed by generous overseas donors. Today the Center is rented to organizations and individuals alike for various functions, providing a much-needed service for the community. It is also used as a hurricane shelter during the Hurricane Season.

Saint Ursula is a part of the diocese of Saint John Basseterre which also comprises of Montserrat, St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua, Barbuda, Anguilla and Tortola. Bishop Donald Reece the then Bishop of the Diocese appointed Fr Jack Whyte to be the Parish Priest of St. Ursula’s Church in 1988. Fr. Whyte was a well-groomed humored person, his two boxes that still sits on the walls at the entrance of the Church was named Banco Popular for deposits only no withdrawals. One could not help but give when he was finished with his sermons. Father Whyte personally ran every aspect of the church to the best of his knowledge and capacity.

The church was truly fortunate where many of the items used were donated by residents, visitors, parishioners and one of our generous donators Franka Pickering. Our Congregation is very diverse with mainly immigrants from the Caribbean and abroad, as well as visitors who reside here during the winter months and of course the many tourists that frequent our shores, especially during the tourist season.

In the early days, our choir was small with the sole musician- the late Sam Leonard. Today we have an adult choir and two youth choirs. We have also added the guitar and congo drums to our musical instruments. Bishop Reece initiated various committees in the church such as Finance, Liturgy, Catechist and Parish Council to aid with the daily operations of the church, all of which is functional to date with the recent addition of the Ladies Group.

Ms Franka Pickering one of the founding members of this church played an integral role in the formation and upkeep of the various committees in the church and did so until December 2013 when she resigned from all her duties to write her poetry and cookbooks and to pass the baton onto other members of the church community.

St Ursula had such a diverse culture of Priests over the years, they each brought much wisdom and knowledge of various cultures to the parishioners. We express our thanks and appreciation to all the priest who ministered in Virgin Gorda and especially to those who were Parish Priests.

1989 – 1999.     Fr. Jack Whyte CssR

1999 – 2002,     Covered by several priests. Msgr. Robert Haughton-James, Fr. Peter Brannelly, Fr. Jan Pastuszczak,

Fr. Paul Collier.

2002 – 2004:     Fr. Nihal Abeyasingha CssR

2004 – 2009.     Fr, Larry Finnegan SVD

2009 – 2012      Fr. Luis Lapus SVD

2012 – 2020.     Fr. Jan Pastuszczak SVD

2020 –               Fr. George Agger SVD

Some of the priest who served for shorter periods included: Fr. Tony Jeroncic, Fr. George Williams and Fr. Kevin O’Toole- Antigua, Fr. Jerry  Mellert – Montserrat, Fr.Joseph Jubrasingh – Trinidad, Monsignor Haughton James – Jamaica, Bishop Elliott Thomas – St. Thomas, Fr. Bernard Latus– St. Kitts, Fr. Barney Brannelly– Australia, Deacon Hewlett – Tortola, Fr. Vincent – New York, Fr. Walter Mendonca –  Fr. Nihal, Fr. George – India, Fr. PO – Poland, Fr. Anthony – Trinidad, Fr. Moody– Dominica, Fr. Xuan Ho, Fr. Anthony Paba – St. Lucia; Brother Lesroy  Williams– St. Kitts,

We also had a visiting priest from Puerto Rico who was into nature and would disappear for hours through the hills and rocks looking for bugs and snakes!

Our Catholic Youth Envisionairs formed in 2006 under the guidance of Fr. Larry Finnegan has grown from strength to strength, many are now our young adult members.  Among their activities included participation at:  World Youth Day 2005 in Germany, Youth Jamboree in Antigua 2009, Youth Jamboree B.V.I 2010 World Youth Day and Pilgrimage 2011 France and Spain, AEC in St. Lucia 2012, Youth Leaders and Catechists workshop in Anguilla 2012, CYIA youth group summer retreat in St. John USVI 2012, AEC Antiqua 2015, Youth Jamboree St. Kitts 2019.

Our Catechists are active in the parish and in many Diocesan and AEC seminars and workshops.

The Parish is blessed with many committed members who minister in various councils and committees.  These include: Pastoral; Catechetical; Liturgy; Youth; Finance; Music/Choir; Hurricane preparedness; Ladies group.

As well as fulfilling their respective responsibilities,  parish outings form an important element in building the parish spirit,  These have included, Sports Days, Game Nights, Caroling, Bible Study, Fundraisers, Annual Tea Party, Annual Christmas Concert, Soup nights and Barbeques, Raffles, Bazaars and Yard sales, Father’s Day and Mother’s Day  celebrations, Picnics etc..

Hurricane Irma:  Virgin Gorda was devasted when Irma, a Category 5 hurricane struct on 6th September 2017, followed ten days later by hurricane Maria. The damage was so great and widespread that nothing was spared. Communication was cut off from the other islands and from the outside world for many days. Our families and loved ones, did not know whether we survived or not.  A small blessing was that Irma hit during daylight hours, had it been at night many casualties and injuries would have occurred. Thank God we suffered no fatalities: The trauma inflicted on our inhabitants and members was great, it is something that will always stay with us. The Marina was littered with sinking and damaged yachts, pleasure cruisers, and ferries; many thrown up onto the shore. Added to the destruction, was the shortage of shelter and we were without electricity for several weeks.  The whole population reached out to those in need and help from overseas slowly arrived to help alleviate our situation.  Our Catholic Community Centre, minus its galvanized roof, but still with its wooden ceiling, became a home to many left homeless.  Our beloved St. Ursula’s Church, an icon on the Hill overlooking our main street was so severely damaged, that eventually the hard decision was made to demolish it and start all over again.  Remarkedly, the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, erected during Fr. Lapus time, was undamaged.

Fr. Jan Pastuszczak, our parish Priest during that terrible time, tells his story, of how he survived, and how the presbytery was destroyed.  

Fr. Jan’s Irma account.

“I was in my residence when hurricane Irma struck. Around 10:40am it started removing the roof from the church.

A piece of the roof ripped a hole in the ceiling of my bedroom. That was the beginning of the end.

Shortly after that, the front doors began to rattle violently. After several attempts to secure them I moved to

another room and the hurricane tore out the front doors and got into the house. Parts of the roof were ripped off, except for the office. When the roof collapsed, it destroyed almost everything in that room. I tried to keep the door of my bedroom closed, but the wind was too powerful.  I moved to the bathroom and locked the

door.  When the center of the hurricane passed, a very strong wind came from the opposite direction and removed the roof of my bedroom and pushed-in the door to the bathroom.  For the next 2 hours I watched, as the hurricane

tossed the heavy mattress from wall to wall, and small pieces of the roof over the bathroom, kept falling, piece

by piece over my head. I prayed and asked if this is the time of my end, but God decided NOT YET.

For the next two nights I slept in the car: during the day I sat by the ruins hoping to protect what was left. On the

third day a parishioner found me a room with a family whose house survived. They are not members of

our church, but they opened their doors for a homeless priest. May God give them unending blessings.  I saved most

of my clothing, computer and phone. Almost all the house furniture was destroyed. The church lost ¾ of the roof. We saved 5 wooden benches and chairs.

In one corner of the church, we set up everything we needed   to celebrate Mass. Because my two albs were lost, I wore my vestments over my street clothing during Mass. We celebrated Mass every Sunday, even the Sunday after Irma.  As this news spread, more people joined us, as they heard that the Catholic Community were celebrating in the ruins of their Church”.

Covid 19: We were still recovering from Irma when Covid 19 hit the world. Lent, Easter and Pentecost 2020 were spent in Lockdown. We thank God that Virgin Gorda was spared any cases of the Virus, although sadly one death occurred in Tortola. The Government wisely imposed a very strict lockdown on the whole Territory. Like everyone all over the world, we had to adjust to a “New Regular” Churches were closed for about 6 weeks, and gradually allowed to open, first with a congregation limit of 20, then 50 and now 100.  Social distancing, face coverings, hand washing are now part of our Sunday worship. But while the churches were shut, worship continued. Most members followed daily and Sunday Mass, and Holy Week services on Social Media, some tuning into famous Churches such as St. Peters in Rome, others to their home islands churches, and to churches throughout the diocese. We got a new sense of what “catholic” meant.  During Lockdown, members kept in close contact with each other on WhatsApp. Messages and prayers were shared every single day. In one sense, the experience was one of deepening our faith, but we were very happy when allowed back to worship as a community.

The Future: Now, as the Diocese celebrates its 50thJubilee, we the newest parish of the diocese must again start to build.  Plans and preparations are ready, it is our hope that the new St. Ursula Church on Virgin Gorda will be the very first Church to be blessed and consecrated by Bishop Robert Llanos as the Diocese enters into its next fifty years.

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