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Fr Anthony’s vocation evolves

Although retired for some time, Holy Ghost priest Fr Anthony de Verteuil continues to make his contribution to the local Church in these COVID-19 times. Senior writer Lara Pickford-Gordon sat down for an interview.

Fr Anthony de Verteuil’s first Zoom class with an Infant 2 class at Maria Regina Grade School, Port of Spain was by his own admission a “disaster”, but he looks back on that episode with amusement.

“I remember that only too well …I knew in advance they would not have much of an attention span, so I began with a prayer… but the attention span was a minute at a time,” he said.

The antics of the pupils ages five and six were quite unforgettable. “They stood on their head, they put out their tongue, they fell asleep, all kinds of things, they tried to balance a pencil between their nose and their forehead…” Fr Anthony said. He realised that teaching children so young was not going to work for him, so he said, “no more infant classes”.

For 13 years, Fr Anthony, as he is more commonly known, has been school chaplain going one morning per week to administer the Sacrament of Confession for the Grade Three to Five classes, nine classes in total. He usually gave a talk to the pupils before hearing their confessions and presides at Masses at the opening and close of the school term/graduation, and First Communion.

Fr Anthony has journeyed with many of the children for years. When education institutions were closed March 2020 because of COVID-19, confessions could not continue but he was asked to do a religion class. He meets the children of Grades 1–5 online one Wednesday every five weeks.

While his first time did not go well, he added “I learnt quite a bit”. Fr Anthony spent time before his next class observing the techniques used by other teachers who used pictures and asked the children questions.

“In other words, involving the children and we usually have one, two or three prayers to break things up.” Although his meetings online with each class were only for about 15 minutes, Fr Anthony said he kept the younger children in Grades 1–3 alert by asking them to “stretch and yawn”.

“Poor things, they are just sitting and looking at a computer screen so after about seven minutes, I just yawn and say, ‘come on let’s yawn, and stretch’. I do the yawning and the stretching and encourage them.”

He encouraged involvement by asking them to smile, wave, bow their heads for the prayers, and raise their hands to ask questions.

Maria Regina’s Principal Elizabeth Crouch commended Fr Anthony’s ability to “distil a message” from any Bible reading and “bring it down to right where they are in terms of their development”. And when asked what did Father say? “They can tell you,” Crouch said.

Fr Anthony connected with his pupils and engaged them to contribute responses and share about their family/home life. After schools closed, Crouch said it was very important to have continuity with a “spiritual resource” like Fr Anthony, so he was asked to do mini-talks with the children. He went to the school to conduct the Zoom classes.

“He has such an incredible mind; he brings a realism and concreteness to children. He never ever does a sermon, homily and talk with children that they cannot understand and that is why in my mind he is so brilliant.”

Fr Anthony hopes that through the classes he is imparting some ideas about the Catholic faith, giving “a little break” from the secular subjects and the children see “life is more than learning different things”.

He does not have too many themes in his talks because he sees the children every five weeks. Instead, he tries to focus on a theme, and “to give each talk a value in itself”.

The Feast Day for Our Lady of Lourdes was Thursday, February 11, so he used photos of Our Lady and a grotto in his talk. As the patron saint of sickness and healing, he asked the children about caring for the sick, “if any of them had a grandma or someone sick at home and did they take care of her”.

At 88 years, (he will be 89 on May 7) Fr Anthony must use a walking stick to aid his mobility, after a bad fall three years ago in which he broke his hip. That and arthritis have not halted his giving of self.

 

Still preaching the Word

Fr Anthony was ordained to the priesthood in 1961, joining the Holy Ghost Fathers. He was assigned to do missionary work in Nigeria for a brief period and afterwards returned to Trinidad and began teaching at St Mary’s College in 1963.

Fr Anthony served as the Vice-Principal of Fatima College 1966–1968. He returned to teaching at St Mary’s and became the principal in 1978 until he retired in 1992 at 60 years. Thereafter, he continued teaching Geography to the Advanced Level class and giving retreats.

“When I retired, I went as Chaplain at St Anthony’s College and I was there for a number of years and taught a religion class for one or two days a week,” he said in an interview on March 9. Fr Anthony had no idea how he wanted to spend his retirement years but “wanted to continue with priestly ministry” which he did, filling in for Fr Knolly Knox CSSp in Diego Martin and weekend Masses in other parishes. Priestly ministry continues at the Saturday Masses at the Living Water Community chapel. His homilies are not long, and he says he is obeying the Holy Father Pope Francis.

On different occasions, the Pope has touched on homilies that they should not be long and boring. At a weekly general audience at the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall, he said, homilies should be well prepared and brief. He recommended “no more than ten minutes”.

Fr Anthony said, “I know from teaching unless you change things after ten minutes, quarter of an hour, the attention span is gone and then how much have I got to tell them, how much more will they remember?”

He recalled attending a Mass in which the homilist announced they had four points. “After his sermon I remember coming out and asking Fr [Arthur] Lai Fook CSSp, I said, ‘do you remember the four points?’ and he said ‘no’. I try to give them one point and if they remember that, that is good.”

Fr Anthony never keeps his homilies. He said when he was doing three and four Masses on a weekend after preaching a sermon twice, he could not stand to use it again.  “I tear up any sermons I give and throw them in the wastepaper basket and start again. Incidentally, it may be the same as it was before, but that is incidental.”

His Saturday homilies are prepared Monday or Tuesday and by Thursday he may tear it up and write about something else. Fr Anthony said he spent time preparing. He researched, then he meditated on what the scripture meant to him and what it should mean to his listeners.

He tries to connect scripture to an incident that happened or an experience from his life. Fr Anthony said he always leaves a little room for how the Spirit moves him.

Mask wearing is part of safety protocols against COVID-19 and while necessary, it has disrupted a connectedness he felt with his listeners. “Where previously you look at them and they might smile or they might look sad; you get a reaction, now there’s no reaction and that is very disappointing for me. I don’t feel that I’m in contact as I should be.”

In between teaching, doing Masses and other priestly duties, he wrote several books, starting with The Living Rosary in 1968. Most of his 42 publications were historical but he also writes creatively. Last year during the lockdown he wrote Religious Poems and Parian Tragedy.

For PART II of Fr Anthony’s story CLICK HERE

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