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Caring for the people of East POS

Retired priest Fr Michael Makhan shares his memories of priestly ministry in Port of Spain and environs, and the work of St Martin’s Welfare Association

In 1970, I was one of the first local priests to be assigned to work in the Cathedral parish. It was a memorable year because of turbulence in the politics of our country. Some men had stormed the Cathedral, as they said, “to drive” out the ‘white’ priests. Archbishop Anthony Pantin asked Fr Sydney Charles who was in Santa Rosa, Arima to take charge of the Cathedral parish for good reason. Fr Cockburn and I were to be his assistants.

I remember the few times I visited some of the Dominican priests at the Cathedral like Frs Nicholas Sheridan, Brendon Ryan, Joe Kavanagh, Davey, Keating etc.  They were always civil towards us.

Fr Charles told me that I should spend more time with the grass roots folks. So, I walked about Nelson, George and Duncan Streets with my priestly garb on.

I got permission to visit the various government schools. The principals of St Phillip’s, near the John John flyover; Piccadilly Government, Eastern Boys’ and Eastern Girls’ all welcomed me graciously.

On Saturdays, I took Holy Communion to the sick in John John, Beetham, the hospital and various geriatric homes. What a joy it was when the elderly folks told me how they knew various members of my family, and who used to come by to help them to pick rice, cut dasheen bush, shell peas and so on. That was an important parish ministry.

I said “Hi” to the saga boys playing cards by the apartments. I knew the nicknames of some of the Rasta men, and they always called out to me on the streets or in the Queen’s Park Savannah where we enjoyed horse racing. I have albums of all the famous local and foreign racehorses. I loved to attend cycling and athletics at the Oval. We cheered on Compton Gonzales and the other athletes.


St Martin’s Welfare Association

Working in the East Dry River area was an unforgettable experience. ‘Brother’ George Bowen gave me full support and encouragement. “Sir” as they called him was very well-known and esteemed in the area.

He came from Morne Jaloux in Grenada to become a monk at Mt St Benedict but after not finding his vocation there, he obtained permission from the Abbot and Archbishop Finbar Ryan to work as a layman in the John John area.

‘Bro Bowen’ and friends of the Carmelite Order used to visit the poor people in the area. They loved him. He was kind and caring. We used to ask our ‘better off’ friends to help pay the light bills and collect Christmas hampers for the poor. And the children would run to me and ask if I brought Jub Jub, Tamarind Balls, Chennette and plums for them.

They started the St Martin’s Welfare Association and an old building in the community was made into a centre. Boys came to play table tennis and we got a few men to teach them plumbing and house repairs. That was before Servol came on the scene.

With the help of well-wishers like Don Gonzales, Roland Graham, the Coopers and others, things began to take shape. Bro Bowen slept upstairs the centre. I persuaded a few folks to give him usable furniture like an old bed, and WASA came to supply water. Bro Bowen got persons to help pay rent and light bills for poor people.

The poor women worked as washers, cooks, cleaners and general helpers to women who had to go to work. They respected the Association because these poor women, mostly from Grenada and undocumented immigrants, found comfort and support from Bro Bowen.

Many of the men became members of the Cathedral Credit Union headed by Carlton Neptune. Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams even asked Bro Bowen to be his candidate for elections.

By the grace of God, the presence of the Church was making inroads into the life of the parish. We had monthly Mass for the elderly in the area. When Bro Bowen visited the poor, he often called upon me to accompany him. Someone donated a ‘beat up’ car to the Association and I got my mechanic to do the repairs when required.

People trusted the Association, which provided workers, washers, ironers, childcare, cleaners etc. Even my parents had persons that came from the Association.

Frank Cooper is now in charge. Due to the crime rate, the work of St Martin’s is now not noticed. I hope their work continues somehow.