Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, pre-Covid Ash Wednesday at Sacred Heart RC, Richmond Street was standing room only, as workers from around the city and longstanding parishioners gathered at the noon Mass. It remains a space for anyone passing through the city in need of quiet. The Easter vigil on Glorious Saturday night attracted a faithful crowd.
“The church is made from Laventille bluestone and yellow stock bricks, just like the Cathedral [of the Immaculate Conception] and just like President’s House and a lot of our old buildings. It’s a little gem in the midst of all the confusion in Port of Spain,” said Architect Rudylynn De Four Roberts during a site visit.
Each church tells something about the era in which it was built. “You have to remember when this church was built, this was a residential neighbourhood so the people who lived in Victoria Square and Woodbrook…would come here. It was finished in 1882, and it was actually built when the population of Port of Spain was French Creole so the French Creole people used to go to Rosary Church, and this was built for the English-speaking Catholics. When you look at everything in the Church, the detailing, the stained glass and Stations of the Cross, we see the links to British heritage.”
In 1874, “The Dominican Fathers agreed to purchase the Tomasi property at Richmond Street for the establishment of an English Church by advancing the sum of $2500. The President of the Council of the Dominican Community was Father P. O’Carroll – Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Port of Spain and Vicar Provincial of the Mission of Trinidad” (the Archdiocesan Archive). Seven years later, April 2, one of the priests of the Cathedral-Fr. Greenough OP, wrote to the Archbishop asking him to pay $200 towards expenses to John Gonsalves, the contractor for building the new church.
Gothic by Design
Sacred Heart has a Gothic design, like Rosary and the Cathedral. “It is small, but it has all the elements of Gothic revival. It’s got the pointed arches on the windows, they are called lancet windows because they are shaped like a lancet knife that is a typical Gothic shape,” De Four Roberts said. She explained that Gothic-styled churches have big windows and “at every point between the windows you will see structural buttresses on the exterior.”
What is a buttress? A “vertical structural element of a building, going outward perpendicularly from the wall of a high building in the form of a pillar. The buttress is to reinforce the wall and move the weight of the building vault to the ground. Viewed from the side, it extends stepped or tiled. [It] Enables the use of large, tall windows that occupy a large area of the walls, thereby losing their support function,”
De Four Roberts said, “If you look at the design of the windows, you will see all the elements of Gothic architecture depicted in the background design of the windows. You see the Gothic churches with steeples and all the finials and pinnacles. Every single window shows that.”
She pointed out the finials (decorative accessory placed at the top or end of an object) at the top of the altar. “It all works together, so they were all done as one design; it may very well be that the same person who designed the windows may have designed the High Altar as well.”
Sacred Heart also has an array of stained glasswork. These images tell stories to the congregation about the lives of the saints etc.
De Four Roberts said, “This type of stained glass started at a time when most people could not read. There wasn’t an opportunity to go to a library and get a book, so the stained glass would tell a story. If you look at all of these windows, they are each dedicated to a particular saint. The idea is to tell the congregation about these ordinary people who became saints, so it is something we can all aspire to.” Because of its history, she surmised the windows “more than likely they came from England because the Church was built for English Catholic.” The Gothic revival style was popular in United Kingdom during the 19th century. The stained glass, “contained flat decorative designs and lead lines that outlined and separated colours”
She called the stained glass at Sacred Heart, “probably the best stained-glass windows that we have in the country. And the only other windows that I have seen to rival this is the Trinity Cathedral.”
De Four Roberts said another Gothic feature were the “beautiful hammer beams. Similar to Trinity Cathedral but not quite as elaborate”., These were replaced when a steel roof was installed.
Sacred Heart has retained an altar rail, which separates the sanctuary with the high altar from the priests did the Mass in Latin facing the tabernacle with their backs facing the congregation. After Vatican II, altars faced the people and it became common to receive communion standing.
“We don’t have a lot of churches in Trinidad with communion rails any more so …this is very precious. In most of the older churches the communion rails were removed but these are the original rails…you see the Gothic elements, the pointed arch in the design. This detail relates back to the high altar and to the general style of the church.” The rail is made of Florentine marble.
A great investment made by the people in the past, are today our church artefacts. The Church of the Sacred Heart was blessed and opened by Archbishop Louis Joachim Gonin (1863-1899) on December 3, 1822, Advent Sunday. The Catholic Directory 1914 reports, “Its beautiful paintings of the Stations of the Cross are by Westlake, A.R.A [Associate of the Royal Academy] and cost $960”. The Westlake referred to could be Philip Westlake, a 19th-century British painter, the brother of Nathaniel Westlake, one of the partners in Lavers, Barraud and Westlake, Ecclesiastical Designers. “The splendid windows, from Hardman and Powell [1827-1895], were, with two exceptions, the small one with emblems of the Blessed Sacrament behind the altar, and that of St. Thomas Aquinas behind the pulpit, gifts of the relatives of those to whose memory they were erected. In the sanctuary they represent St. James Apostle, St. Martin of Tours, St. Laurence Martyr, and St. Charles Borromeo, the cost
of each was $700: that of the larger ones, St. Thomas Apostle, St. Cecelia, Our Lady of the Rosary and St. Thomas Aquinas ranging from $1200 to $1800. The amount for the last named was raised by a pound subscription and presented to Father Thomas Greenough OP on his entering the 25th year of his labours in Trinidad.”
The church’s tower was built in 1893, and in 1894, 13 tubular bells were installed at a cost of $1,440. These were replaced in 1896. The rood-screen—a screen typically with a decorative design, separating the nave from the choir or chancel of a church—was copied from the design in Westminster Abbey.
During the 1940s, work was undertaken, painting of the church railing (1945), tiling of the sanctuary and new pulpit accessories acquired (1946), the new lighting system (1947), new sacristy and Lady Chapel (1948), complete overhaul of the church organ (1949), general repairs to church and painting (1950). The church was consecrated on June 6, 1950. In 1965, Sacred Heart church lands were acquired by Fr Benoit Berthet OP for $5,000.
“The beautiful church of Sacred Heart, entirely of cut stone, stands today as a monument to the great artistic sense of Fr Thomas and his long dedication to the people of Trinidad,” Sr Marie Thérèse Rétout OP Parish Beat.