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A year of anniversaries

Published:Friday | May 25, 2012 | 12:00 AM

By Peter Espeut

On June 27, 1512, King Ferdinand of Spain asked the Franciscans in Santo Domingo to send missionaries to Jamaica to evangelise the Tainos. Later that year, 10 Franciscan friars arrived to take up residence. This year, we celebrate the quincentenary of the coming of the Christian Church to Jamaica, along with the 50th anniversary of Jamaica's independence from Great Britain.

Both milestones are bittersweet, for history has its moments of glory, and its moments of 'dip and fall back'. The project to evangelise the Tainos failed miserably; the imperial conquistadores were more interested in exploiting the labour of the Tainos than saving their souls, and by the time the English conquered Jamaica, none were to be found alive.

In the 143 years the Catholic Church had exclusive tenure here, it thrived among the Spanish and Jamaica-born colonists. Santiago de la Vega (today's Spanish Town) was a Catholic city, with a collegiate church presided over by an abbot, a hospital (St John the Divine), a Dominican monastery (named after St Dominic), a Franciscan monastery (San Diego), and two hermitages (Santa Lucia and Santa Barbara).

In Europe, the Christian Church was in turmoil. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Saxony; and in 1534, King Henry VIII declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England, and the Anglican Church was born. While the reformers protested against the Catholic Church, others dissented against the Protestants; King Charles I was beheaded, and in 1653, the Puritan Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England, which ended the monopoly of the Church of England on Christian worship in England.

Cromwell launched an attack upon Spanish possessions in the Caribbean to weaken Catholic influence in Europe and in the New World. The capture of Jamaica unleashed Puritan fury against local Catholic chapels, which were burnt and pillaged. Later, when William of Orange ascended the throne of England, the Catholic Church was banned in England and in her colonies, and no Catholic could hold public office in the English empire.

When Kingston was laid out around 1700, the major streets were named after Protestant champions: King Street and Orange Street after King William III of Orange; (East and West) Queen Street after his wife, Queen Mary; and Duke Street was named after Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester, whose birth seemed to cement the Protestant succession.

Surviving persecution

Despite being banned, the Catholic Church survived underground both in England and in Jamaica; the stories of secret chapels and priests hidden in cellars makes exciting reading.

In 1791, the British Parliament passed an act reversing the anti-Catholic penal laws in force since 1558 - the beginning of the emancipation of Catholics in Britain and the British colonies. Catholics could no longer be required to take the Oath of Supremacy, and could now be openly educated in their faith, and attend Mass publicly.

In 1791, Spanish Catholics resident in Jamaica asked the government to allow a priest to come to Jamaica to minister to their spiritual needs. At the same time in 1791, slaves in what today is called Haiti rose up in a successful rebellion against their masters. Almost immediately there was an exodus of French planters and their families - almost exclusively Catholics - to Kingston; some brought their loyal slaves with them.

The Catholic church officially returned to Jamaica in 1792 when the first Catholic priest was sent to Jamaica from London; other priests came as refugees from Haiti. In 1808, Kingston had a population of 30,000, half of whom were slaves; 2,350 (7.8 per cent) were Catholics, comprising 1,450 slaves and 900 whites (600 French and 300 other whites).

The Catholic Church in Jamaica in 1808 was numerically a black church, but was dominated by expatriate whites, who did not seek to evangelise the thousands of black slaves in Jamaica, or the English and Scottish whites. Preoccupied with surviving in a foreign and hostile culture, the Catholic Church turned in on itself, and remains quite small in Jamaica today.

Numerically, the Jamaican Catholic Church is still a black church. Globally, the Catholic Church is growing fastest in Africa. To mark our 500th anniversary, on June 24, 2012, Catholics from all across Jamaica will gather at the National Arena to listen to the Most Rev Gabriel Charles Palmer Buckle, Archbishop of Accra, Ghana, speak of the church's phenomenal attraction to Africans. Many Jamaicans can trace their heritage to Ghana, and Archbishop Palmer Buckle's message should be quite timely as we look backward at the last 500 years, and forward into the new millennium.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to