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What’s beneath our Cathedral

Bernie Maharaj gestures as Fr Martin Sirju shines a torchlight into the burial chamber

We are living in the here and now, but do we think of who and what went before? Copy editor/writer Simone Delochan begins an ongoing series on Church history, starting with the Mother Church.

It felt like the start of an adventure. It perhaps is. And I was a conservatively clad Lara Croft.
I’m not sure how many people are aware of the old crypt that runs under the altar of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

Of the new crypt behind the altar, which holds the remains of Blessed Anthony Pantin and Bishop John Mendes, there is greater familiarity. This is an open and comforting space, not unlike the man I remembered Archbishop Pantin to be. The old crypt, imaginatively however, held the promise of mystery, darkness, dust, skeletons, and a tangible taste of the Cathedral and Archdiocese’s history.

The first step was to get the crypt open. But how? General Manager of CAMSEL Kathryn Tardieu was on board, as excited as I was, and reached out first to the Cathedral Administrator, Fr Martin Sirju who gave us the go ahead. But there was a slab covering the steps down to be removed. My imagination pinged. A stone slab? Heavy, to protect the space? Would we need a crane? Where exactly was the entrance? And the steps! Narrow, I thought, leading far down into thick and musky depths….

The slab was made of wood, and the entrance to the old crypt located in the sacristy. All that was required was the help of some men from Clarke and Battoo, [more on their involvement later] and a tool, a pigfoot to remove nails and prise the slab.

On November 6, five of us were part of the amateur adventurers’ club: Kathryn, the editor and photographer of the moment, Raymond Syms, Fr Sirju, Bernie Maharaj, sacristan at the Cathedral, and I. This was a momentous occasion. It was the first time that the crypt was being reopened since the restoration work had been done.

Fr Sirju was the first down, and the rest of us followed. This is where imagination is impeded by reality. The concrete steps led down to a small concrete cavern which unfortunately had about a foot of water. There were, what looked like two concrete platforms, on which were the remains of Mendes and Pantin before they were removed to the new crypt, we were told.
But they had rested on two of their predecessors, because in those concrete encasements were the remains of Archbishop Patrick Vincent Flood, who died in 1907, and Archbishop John Pius Dowling who died in 1940, the fifth and sixth bishops of this Archdiocese. I felt a quiet reverence. The space didn’t feel anti-climactic anymore.

Simone Delochan exploring the burial chamber

The old crypt, the one I had expected to explore had been sealed off. Brian Connell, head altar server at the cathedral was there just before the crypt had been sealed. There were seven coffins that he saw, and both lay people as well as high-ranking Church officials were still interred. He says of the visit, “People weren’t really allowed to go down into the crypt…. Some of the wood was kinda mashed up…when we went down there, we saw one of the coffins broken. Flood, we saw his skeleton, and the rings on his hands.”

Flood and Dowling were moved to their present location because of the extent of the flooding and deterioration which had occurred. Why was the crypt sealed off? Says Connell, “Because of the wear and tear, and they say they found scorpions, they closed it off.”
One of the people who was buried there, it is rumoured, is Governor Woodford’s wife; of the others, no-one I asked knew. It is a little sad, that people who had given to the Church, now seemed lost to history. I have one clue to go by as I attempt to resurrect those interred from a (thus far) anonymous past.

This is the first in a series on resurrections: of the archbishops who served in forming this archdiocese, the stories/lore of our churches beginning with the Cathedral. Sometimes, we need to be reminded we are not a rootless people—that we are formed from a rich, and complex past in this locale.

-Simone Delochan copyeditor.camsel@catholictt.org

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