The Other CM: Catholic Missionary Outreach to the Indians of Trinidad in the Nineteenth Century

By Taitt, Glenroy | The Journal of Caribbean History, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Other CM: Catholic Missionary Outreach to the Indians of Trinidad in the Nineteenth Century


Taitt, Glenroy, The Journal of Caribbean History


Introduction

Drawing on archival documents in French located in Trinidad, France and Italy, the present study has produced a much clearer picture of the Catholic mission among the Indians of Trinidad. The documents include letters from Dominican priests in southern Trinidad to Archbishop Gonin in Port of Spain; correspondence between the Church in Trinidad and L'Oeuvre de la Propagation de la Foi (Institution of the Propagation of the Faith) a French organization that funded overseas missions and made annual subventions to the Church in Trinidad over the years; a report on the Archdiocese of Port of Spain submitted to the Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith in Rome by the archbishop in 1874; an extensive 1896 report on the Dominican mission in Trinidad following the handover of the diocese to the Irish Dominicans; annual circulars from the Dominican sisters; contemporary biographical sketches of several of the sisters; and other memoirs written by the nuns. These primary documents have not been examined in any study in English on the Catholic Church in Trinidad.1

In contrast to the well-documented work of the Canadian missionaries, or CM, the branch of the Presbyterian Church that arrived in Trinidad from Nova Scotia in 1868 expressly to Christianize the migrants from India and their offspring, Catholic missionary activity among the Indian population has received minimal attention from scholars. Approximately 143,000 Indians, mainly from the north, came to Trinidad to work as indentured labourers on sugar and cocoa estates between 1845 and 1917. The overwhelming majority were Hindus, a minority were Muslims, and a tiny fraction came as Christians. The thousands of socalled heathen souls were an alluring target for Christian denominations. While the Presbyterian, Catholic and Anglican churches all toiled among these "non-believers", the work of the Presbyterians has dominated the historiography. Moreover, a skewed picture of the Catholic missionary effort in Trinidad has emerged from the oft -quoted literature published in English.2 As the subsequent discussion will show, the Catholic missionary outreach to Trinidad's Indian population was much more pronounced than previously believed. It involved a wider geographic area, more missionaries - including females whose efforts have barely been recounted - and touched many more Indians than writers and scholars have realized.

According to the existing scholarship, Catholic outreach to the Indians was short lived and largely restricted to northern Trinidad. The main protagonist was Father François Ribon, a Dominican priest, who was particularly active among the Indians in and around the capital of Port of Spain, where he built two chapels for Indians. After his death in 1881 , the Indian mission is said to have declined until it was revived in the early 1900s. Dominican nuns played their part as well, capturing the souls of many Indians through their apostolate at the Cocorite Leper Asylum and the Belmont Orphanage, both of which were located on the outskirts of the capital. From 1868 and 1875 respectively, the sisters ran these two public institutions where many of the inmates were Indians. Then, in the last quarter of the century, the Catholic Church, like the other two Christian denominations, established primary schools that catered exclusively for Indian children, as Indian parents were unwilling to entrust their children to schools, both secular and denominational, that catered to the wider population. Three or four of these Catholic Indian schools are known to have existed, located mainly in the environs of Port of Spain.

Admittedly, a few published works in French have added to our knowledge of the Catholic agenda. Most significant have been the diaries of Fathers Massé and Cothonay, two French Dominican Fathers who ministered in Trinidad between 1878 and 1884, and 1882 and 1888 respectively3 Cothonay added colourful details of Ribon's apostolate: the schools and chapels he built in St. …

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