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Catholic social justice (Part 2)

Published:Friday | June 15, 2012 | 12:00 AM

By Peter Espeut

As Jamaican Roman Catholics gear up to celebrate their 'Journey: 500 years for the Catholic Church, 50 Years for Jamaica', I thought I would share some of the high points of this journey, to emphasise the contribution the Catholic Church has made to this land of ours.

For Catholics, work for social justice and liberation from oppression is not an optional extra, something nice to do if you have a little spare time. The redemption and salvation which Jesus offers are not just from sin, but also from its effects - including poverty and injustice - and we believe that we must do more than just pray for God's will to be done on earth.

It is because of this theological and doctrinal position that the Roman Catholic Church has such a strong record in matters of social justice, of which we are very proud. Last week, I wrote about the formation of the credit union movement, and the aborted effort to put control of sugar production in the hands of former slaves through the organisation of the sugar workers' cooperatives at Frome, Monymusk and Bernard Lodge. This week, I want to share another little-known effort.

The ban on the Catholic Church in Jamaica was lifted only in 1791, and at Emancipation, the Catholic Church in Jamaica was minuscule. In 1834, there were only three Catholic clergymen in Jamaica (all in Kingston), and by 1838 that number had risen to five, and missionary activity had spread only as far as St Catherine. As a result, while the Baptist, Presbyterian, Moravian and Methodist missionaries were busy establishing free villages all across Jamaica and advancing in numbers among the former slaves, the largely foreign Catholic clergy occupied their time ministering to their largely foreign (French- and Spanish-speaking) flock. For the Catholic Church this was a missed opportunity.

In his History of the Catholic Church in Jamaica (1988), Fr Francis Osborne, writes: "The stubborn fact remains, however, that the Church did not take advantage of this important social epoch, no matter what may be the occasion or excuse."

Great experiment

A century later, two initiatives in two different parts of Jamaica attempted to make up for the lapse. In 1940, Fr Raymond R. Sullivan, pastor at Brown's Town, decided to try a great experiment: the creation of Holy Name Homestead - a Christian design for living centred around Holy Name Catholic Church - to benefit the peasants of St Ann who were largely unemployed and living in thatched-roof/wattle-and-daub huts.

With the help of his two brothers in Boston, Sullivan bought land at Chippenham Park, St Ann. The centrepiece of the effort would be a limestone quarry which he estimated would employ 100 people. As World War II ended, the US government donated a 10-ton stone grinder, drill presses, electric pumps, high-speed grinders, block-making machines, electric pumps and a 40HP Caterpillar diesel electric generator.

Fr Sullivan subdivided part of the property into 100 one-acre residential and farming lots. No down payment was made by these very poor people, who were resettled here from Brown's Town, Alva, Murray Mount, Grant's Mountain, and Somerton. The amount of $1 per week was all that was asked from each family, and after 25 years, each would own the house and land.

In Fr Sullivan's words: "In a mountainous area where one- or two-room houses are the rule, these modern, moral homes have four bedrooms, a large combination living and dining room, an inside kitchen and bathroom, front and back porches and electricity. ... In an area where people buy water, four gallons at a time, each family has a 1,200-gallon overhead concrete tank. In drought periods, each home can obtain water from a quarter-million-gallon reservoir, centrally located in the Holy Name township. Each home has running water, kitchen, toilet, basin and shower convenience previously unknown in the area. Each home is surrounded by its own acre of arable land where food for its own consumption is grown."

Each house had four bedrooms to promote sound family life (government houses had one bedroom, and were criticised by the churches since parents and children shared the same bedroom).

In one sense, the project was highly successful: the Chippenham Park factory became the largest producer of lime in CARICOM; but Sullivan had overestimated the labour force required, and relatively few benefited.

After a while, the leaseholds were sold to the tenants, the roads and common areas were transferred to the parish council, and in 1978 the Government bought the unused land for its own housing scheme. Today, the Holy Name Roman Catholic Church marks the site of this innovative experiment.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.