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Our Beautiful Churches: The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

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By Lara Pickford-Gordon

“It holds a special place as a landmark in Port of Spain,” said Architect Rudylynn De Four Roberts of our Mother Church, located in the busy downtown capital. The gothic structure is listed as a Heritage Building by the National Trust. The Catholic News visited July 16, last year with De Four Roberts who shared insights into the unique and attractive features in the design of this monument.

The crypt

CN file photo

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception has a crypt where the bodies of former Archbishops are interred. The original location, below the sacristy, housed the remains of Archbishop Anthony Pantin CSSp, Bishop John Mendes, Archbishop Patrick Vincent Flood OP (1844–1907) and Archbishop John Pius Dowling OP (1860–1940), the fifth and sixth bishops of this Archdiocese. There were other persons buried but that section of the original crypt was sealed, and their identities are unknown. According to De Four Roberts, a new burial chamber was created in the apse of the Cathedral because the crypt had as much as 18 inches of water every high tide. The coffins with Archbishop Pantin and Bishop Mendes, which were “sitting in water” were moved and reinterred at the new location. “We created ten new burial spaces, two in each bay so coffins can be stacked,” she said. Masses can take place there at the small chapel also in the apse. In order to make this space more contemplative and quieter for meditation, a reredos (ornamental screen or partition at the back of an altar) was created to separate the apse (circular or angular end of the church) from the sanctuary.

Stations of the Cross

Roberts said the Cathedral’s Stations of the Cross were designed by Joseph Sibbel (1850–1907) who, in his time, was a famous artist for designing and producing Stations of the Cross. The German-born sculptor established a studio in New York and was known for his ecclesiastical and military figure sculptures. “These Stations were a gift again from Archbishop [Edward] Gilbert. They were originally ivory pinkish in colour, someone along the way painted them in bright colours. Because they are so big, we did not want that colour on the wall jumping out at the congregation.” The Stations were restored by Judy Sheppard to their original colour.

Antique pulpit

The Cathedral has a raised pulpit, not seen in many contemporary churches today, as lecterns have become the norm. De Four Roberts said it is “handcrafted and considered a very valuable piece of antique furniture”. She went on, “Nobody uses it anymore. It has been kept for its historic context, for decoration and to remind people this is where the sermons were delivered when the church was first opened.” Visitors should take a closer look at the religious symbolism in the detailing.

Rose windows

Depending on the time of day, the sun coming through the Cathedral’s rose windows in the transept casts a gorgeous light. De Four Roberts said the frames are of cast iron and 75 per cent of the glass was “old, original glass”. However, some panes had to be replaced over the years because of damage.

Tilework and chandeliers

She commented on the “beautiful” concrete tiles from Santo Domingo which complement older elements of the Cathedral. She referred to the “lacy” fretwork (ornamental woodwork cut to represent small interlacing fillets or trellis work) typical of the “French Creole vernacular”. Some, especially over the altar, had to be replaced because of termites. De Four Roberts said Design Architect Robert Las Heras took inspiration from our historic tiles at Rosary Church for the apse tiling design. The chandeliers, which complement the Cathedral’s fretwork, were handmade by Anna Serrao, artist, designer, and educator. “…When you come into the church you immediately feel that you are in a sacred space. That was generally the idea behind some of the new things introduced like the light fixtures…. patterned after the original chandeliers. We found photos of the original chandeliers that provided inspiration.”

The walls weep

You may wonder why the Cathedral walls seem to look like they need a fresh coat of paint. “One of the problems we have in this area is because of the high water table. The walls are always damp, and you find water rising through the footings particularly in these internal walls and coming up into the building. As the water in the wall evaporates, salts from the brackish water and the soil crystalise on the wall surface,” De Four Roberts said.

Old photos of the Cathedral show that it was near the sea. She commented that “when the Cathedral was built, at high tide the sea was on Independence Square South….so the Cathedral actually sits in water.” De Four Roberts continued, “In deciding to paint the walls, Robert (Las Heras) wanted an old mottled finish; he didn’t want the walls to look new because we were going to have problems with rising damp so he tried to do a finish that probably would not look too badly once the salts started coming out of the wall.”

Our church

The architect said the work on the Cathedral was carefully done to make sure “we didn’t create any detailing that was not appropriate. Engineering was done by GENIVAR and later by Lauriston Lewis and Assoc Ltd; Quantity Surveying by Anthony Krough and Associates. We did not want anything that was out of place. It is a mix of old and new”. She also commended the excellent and dedicated team under Nigel Aqui, Project Manager. The Cathedral took a long time to build because all the funds had to be raised by the Catholic community. While the detailing and sophistication is not on par with Trinity Cathedral “this is all us”, De Four Roberts said. The stones of the structure came from the Laventille quarries and locals mined and cut the stone. She said gravel from the Santa Ana River was used for the mortar and the limestone burnt and slaked on site. “We built this Cathedral; it therefore has a special place in our collective memory. It is all done by Trinidadians and one of the reasons we try to preserve these buildings is to pay respect to the craftsmen…the ones who did all the labour and actually worked on the building.”

HISTORY

“The first Catholic Church in Port of Spain was built in 1781 by the Spanish governor Martin de Salverria on the site that is now known as Tamarind Square. The English governor Sir Ralph Woodford decided to build a church better suited to the growing and predominantly Catholic population. Plans were drawn by the governor’s secretary, Phillip Renagle…”

“Dr James Buckley, Vicar Apostolic to the Holy See, arrived in Trinidad in March 1820 and the church became a Cathedral. Completed in 1832, the Cathedral would be consecrated in 1849 after all the debts had been paid. In 1851 Pope Pius IX declared that the cathedral was to rank as a Minor Basilica. -Olga J. Mavrogordato”

https://nationaltrust.tt/location/the-cathedral-of-the-immaculate-conception/.

The Catholic Directory 1914, states construction of the Cathedral began in 1815. The corner stone was laid March 24, 1816, and it was blessed in 1832. The building was consecrated February 23, 1851. “It is in the shape of a Latin cross, the wing on each side of the transept being chapels of Our Lady of the Rosary and St Joseph respectively, and the organ-loft situated at the West End. Behind the transept, until recent years, was the chapel where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved”. A new organ was bought 1913 from Walker and Son, London and erected at the east end of the Church. “The bell towers, exactly alike stand on either side of the West door. The interior of the church has been, in recent years considerably improved.”

Renovations have been undertaken at the Cathedral at different times over the years. It was closed for extensive renovation in 2012 and re-dedicated on December 28, 2015.

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