The Church in the British Virgin Islands (Tortola)

It is probable, though not recorded, that a Catholic Priest first set foot on Tortola somewhere around the year 1670 when the French occupied the island for a short time.

The English first claimed the island in 1628, but the Dutch were the first true settlers. By 1672 the British had taken over the island again and it would be safe to assume that all French Catholic Clergy would have been among the first to be expelled from the land. For nearly 300 years English law did not allow the presence of a Roman Catholic priest in British Territories until after the 1829 enactment at Westminster of the Catholic Emancipation Act. In the year 1850, Tortola become part of a newly established Catholic Diocese of Roseau, Dominica.

Fr. Bernard Williams, Superior of the Redemptorist in St. Thomas is recorded but order of the Redemptorists, to have been in Tortola in 1877. He tried to start a mission and a Catholic School, but he was unable to, either because he was sick or overworked, or both. Fr. William’s name seemed to have disappeared from any Tortolian record. From then on, there is a long gap in the Catholic history of Tortola. Not until the year 1950 do we hear that the Catholics, having no church, used to attend mass all over the place whenever they had a visiting priest in Government house, for instance, when one of the administrators was a Catholic, and in the prison/police station. Station sergeant Wellington Paul was a Catholic, and he and his wife, both now dead use to held little “get-togethers”, or prayer groups as they are called today. Mrs. Paul accompanied the hymns on the piano. Let’s hope the prisoners were edified and even attended.

According to a letter from Mr. Claude E.E. Browne, a General and Commission agent in Road Town, written to Rev. Fr. Knoll, C.Ss.R. Parish Priest in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, His Lordship the Bishop of San Juan gave authority to Mr. Browne to negotiate the use of the concert hall owned by one Mr. Dwight Heistan for the purpose of celebrating Holy Mass during the visits of the said Reverend Father Knoll here.

On the wall near the side entrance to St. William’s Roman Catholic Church in Road Town are three plaques. The earliest of these refers: Most Reverend William D. O’Brien D.D. Auxiliary Archbishop of Chicago, President of Catholic Church Extension Society of the United States of America, added St. William’s Chapel in his memory, 1957.

Some of the parishioners like Mrs. Sydney Farara, Mrs. Monica Allen, Mr. Lionel Barker and M. Edgar Hewlett remember the visiting priest. They include Fr. Finer and Fr. Daley both from St. Thomas and Fr. Bertrand from St. Croix. Two Paraclete Fathers, according to the Church registry; Joseph R. Moylan and Martin J. McCarthy came in 1960 and 1961 respectively.

In 1965 there were only about fifteen or twenty practicing Catholics on the island, but at least three people felt the need for a church to be built and did something about it. One was Mr. Christopher Hammersley, one time owner of the Fort Burt Hotel, the second was Mr. J. Martin of the Unique Butcher Shop in Road Town, third the Rev. William D. O’Brien, Archbishop of Chicago, who though never setting foot on Tortola, heard there was no Catholic Church there and was sympathetic to their need, that he helped them financially, by very generous donations. Messrs. Martin and Hammersley with six laborers, toiled after their regular day’s work from 6:00 pm to midnight, evening after evening, weather permitting. Mr. Martin supplied the electric power from his generator in his “Unique Butcher Shop” across the road. In five months, by the Grace of God, the laborers of love with the donation from Rev. William’s, the main part of the church was completed. And it was named St. William’s.

Priests continued to come and work in Tortola; a Father Thomas V. Normanly came in 1969 for a period and returned in 1970 and again in 1971. A Father George Calhoun came in 1970 and 1971. It is thought that one of these priests may have been a Trappist. Fr. George Calhoun died relatively recently and was stationed at St. Joseph’s Abbey, Spencer, Massachusetts, USA.

The British Virgin Islands, including Tortola eventually was ceded to the Diocese of St. Thomas. Redemptorist from St. Thomas, and perhaps from other U.S Virgin Islands also served. In their usual faithful way, some (of them) served for two or three months at a time, and often more than once, like Father John Caskey, C.Ss.R. and Fr. Bertrand.

In 1971 the Parish of Tortola was given to Bishop Bowers S.V.D. native of Dominica, as part of his new Diocese of St. John’s Basseterre. Another S.V.D. Fr. A. Charles paid a visit in this same year.

In 1972 Father John Valentine, S.V.D. arrived and stayed for twelve years until his departure in 1984. He was called a “great sticker on the job” by an admiring Anglican. A parishioner wrote when he died; “Dearest Father Valentine – “We shall miss you. When God made you he smashed the mold. You are rare. The children will never forget those chocolates and candies you always kept for them after Mass. You knew all your parishioners by their first name including the children and you loved them all. You visited everyone. You had no favorites. You despised hypocrisy but loved the sinner. You could say a Mass anywhere and anytime. Your door was always opened. Tea was available to everyone at any time and you were always inviting people up. You loved to read and to share. One only had to admire something you had and it was theirs. I still have your ivory letter opener of St. Jude’s Shrine. You didn’t have the heart to drive away Ning no matter what he did you. You had so much learning- but no one knew. Your ever-casual appearance his heart smoldering with love for the poor, the oppressed, the widow, the orphan and the down-islander. We shall never forget you. We know that you are in heaven, and we know that even now, you are going all over heaven begging for graces to put in the bank for St. Williams and as is your way so often delighting all with your quick wit and piquant humor.”

In 1981 Bishop Donald Reece D.D. from Jamaica was appointed over the Diocese of St. John’s Basseterre, which included the British Virgin Islands.

The S.V.D. Fathers, Donald Broderick and Patrick O’Reagan, paid interim visits in 1976. Father Joe Bates served four months in 1983 when Fr. Valentine went on a well-deserved holiday. In February 1984 Fr. Valentine left to take up his new Pastorate in Anguilla and Tortola was privileged to have as its new Parish Priest, the Vicar General, Fr. John Whyte, and C.SS.R.

While in service in Anguilla at St. Gerard’s Church, Fr. Valentine went to his just reward. His final words during his homily on Sunday, 6th July 1986 were “I commend you to God in all his love”.

During those years prior to the following Fr. Whyte’s incumbency there was much work done by the St. William’s prayer group in reaching out to the Catholics in Virgin Gorda and at East End.

As a direct result of this, Mass began to be said in Virgin Gorda first at Catholic homes and later at St. Mary’s Anglican Church. At East End Mass was held in the prayer group meeting place which was a store room owned by Mr. Howard Crabbe. Work had begun on the church in Virgin Gorda during Fr. Whyte’s incumbency. He served at St. William’s from 1984 to 1988.

In 1988 St. Ursula’s Roman Catholic Church at the Valley, Virgin Gorda was completed and dedicated by His Lordship Bishop Donald J. Reece, D.D. Fr. Whyte went on to be the first Parish Priest at St. Ursula’s in Virgin Gorda from 1988-1999.

On Sunday June 6, 1993 Mary Star of the Sea, a new Roman Catholic Church at East End was dedicated; the celebrant the Most Reverend Bishop Donald J. Reece, D.D. This was the result of great effort by Fr. Joe Bates who was Parish Priest of St. William’s from 1988 to 1995.

On the 28th January 1995, our dearly beloved Fr. Joe Bates passed on to his eternal rest and we were blessed with a young priest from Australia to take his place – Fr. Peter Brannelly.

The number of residents regularly attending Mass has risen from 15 in 1965 to about 250 in 1980 through the hard work of Fr. Valentine our truly 1st resident priest. Then later it rose still further under the incumbency of Fr. John Whyte from 1984 to 1988. On the dedication of St. Ursula in Virgin Gorda, Fr. Whyte left us to be Parish Priest there. Fr. Bates came to us in 1988. We then had an average on Sundays of 350 and on special feast days we would overflow into the aisle outside.

Under Fr. Bates the Liturgy was to rise to new heights: A new comprehensive hymn book; enlarged choir, new organ; Youth Mass once per month; Banners and Liturgical decorations on Sunday; the

Catechetical programme expanded; workshops on evangelization and a religious bookstore started.

New St. Williams Church

Fr. Peter made huge strides carrying on the good work began by those who went before. He rebuilt the St. William’s Church now fully air conditioned. The church building was erected on the existing precincts during the incumbency of Fr. Peter Brannelly and was dedicated by His Lordship Donald J. Reece D.D. on the 15th November 1999. Fr. Brannelly served as Parish priest from July 1995 to July 2005.

Youth Ministry

A multifaceted youth programme is now in place with coordinators and moderators in constant communication to ensure all needs are met.

Catechetical Programme

The Catechetical programme has grown immensely with several new teachers. There is an introduction of Para liturgy, expansion of classes to cover a longer range of age groups. There is improved availability of good material from other islands, USA, and U.K. including exchanging of ideas in the Diocese. We have use of the Catechetical Institute in St. Lucia.

Bookstore A bookstore is now available at the back of the Church.

Our Parish Priest Fr. Paul J Czoch SVD

Life of the Parish

There is new life in the Parish, joyful celebrations of the Eucharist, First Communion, Reconciliation and Confirmation. There is great support for the New Church at East End and a great sense of community as a direct result of the BEC Workshops.

On Tortola there is a strong Methodist and Anglican influence, and we are conscious of being in the minority as Catholics. The last national census showed that the area has approximately 600 Catholics, this will have increased substantially with the influx of people from Dominica, Guyana, and St. Lucia in particular. We see about 400 Catholics attending church regularly on Sundays. This number is supplemented by visitors to a great extent in the tourist season and at that time the church seems to be bursting at its seams- with approximately 450 to 500 persons – some having to stand outside on occasion, not counting St. Ursula and Mary Star of the Sea.

The nature of people’s employment greatly influences the church’s attendance. The geographical situation of the BVI also means that there is a strong American influence in our lives and that a significant number of our church members immigrate to the United States of America and uses the BVI as a stepping stone from a permanent residence among our laity.

In the past twenty-five years since St. Williams had its first permanent priest in Fr. John Valentine the number of residents attending Mass regularly on a Sunday has risen from approximately ten (10) to 150 with Fr. Valentine, to approximately 250 with Fr. Whyte to 350 with Fr. Bates.

The Church, Church Hall and Priest Residence are all used nearly every day of the week for Pastoral purposes which attest to the expanding Ministries in the Church at St. William’s.

There is a much greater feeling of community now in the Parish. This has resulted from the creation of new Ministries and associations in the Church. Some of these are Catholic Teachers Association, Men’s Fellowship, Young Adult Achievers, East End Church Development Group, Youth Ministry Training, Prayer Group, Catechetical Training, BEC Workshops and House Rosary Group. All these have helped in terms of personal enrichment, parish enrichment and spiritual growth.

Liturgy

We have a new comprehensive Hymn Book with well over one thousand new hymns more than half of which are already learnt.

Fr. Nihal Abeyasingha

Fr. Nihal Abeyasingha arrived in the British Virgin Islands in December 2003. He had to wait until August 2005 before he took over from Fr. Peter Brannelly. Fr. Nihal is from Sri Lanka with degrees in Civil Law, Buddhism and Theology and has a wide-ranging experience in parish work and teaching at Seminaries. Prior to coming to the BVI he had been teaching for almost twenty-year at the State University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka. He has carried on and tried to build on the work of his predecessors. Together with the parish council he is presently engaged in preparing to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of St. William’s Church.

Fr. Walter Mendonca served in Tortola from 2009 until 2018. The current parish priest is Fr. Paul J. Czoch, SVD.

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