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June 28, 2022
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June 28, 2022

OUR CATHOLIC ICONS: Leela Ramdeen’s passion for justice

Leela Ramdeen, a champion of Social Justice, before becoming Chair, Catholic Commission for Social Justice (CCSJ) and the Archdiocese’s Ministry for Migrants and Refugees (AMMR) was a long-standing advocate for fairness and justice. She is also the first in our Catholic Icons web series. Below is an extract of the initial interview of Ramdeen by Catholic News’ communications lead, Dominique Heffes-Doon, where Ramdeen talks about her early life and roots in advocacy.

Early years

Both of my parents met at school in Sangre Grande. My father was from a Hindu background. [His family were] wealthy cocoa plantation owners who would tell him they’d find “a nice Hindu girl” for him, but he fell in love with a Catholic girl, my mother.  Their love story still reverberates in that area because it was a mixed marriage. My maternal grandmother was from Venezuela. Ma’s father was from Barbados. Their mixed marriage was frowned upon. They moved to Chaguanas. My father got a job with the County Council and I was born in Montrose. I’m the third child in a family of seven.  My mother remained a Catholic, but her children weren’t Catholics. Shortly after I was born, I fell ill and the doctor said to her, “You better say some prayers…she won’t survive”. I cried constantly and I was swollen. My mother begged my father to allow me to be baptised and he eventually agreed. They took me to [the parish of] St Philip and St James. The parish priest was Canon Max Murphy. The organist and his wife were practicing. Canon Murphy became my godfather and the [organist’s wife] became my godmother. This was June 1950, the month that saint Maria Goretti was canonised. So Canon Murphy gave me that name: Leela Maria Goretti Ramdeen….The beauty about it is that I obviously had a purpose even in my early years, [to evangelise] because then my mother pleaded with my father and he allowed all the children to be baptised — my first two siblings and all who came after — all seven children were baptised.

Racism in childhood

Professor Rhoda Reddock said at one of UWI and CCSJ’s conferences that in Trinidad and Tobago we see everything through the prism of race. Being of mixed ethnicity, I grew up experiencing racism. On one side, we were called the “C” word and on the other the “N” word. I grew up resenting the way in which race was dividing society. My father was a member of Parliament in our first independent Parliament, from 1961-1966.  They both faced racism in Parliament because of their mixed marriage. I won’t go into detail. Even at school we faced racism.  We initially went to a Hindu school and then I went to Holy Faith Convent, Couva. But all the way through being mixed, we experienced racism. And remember, ‘Dougla’ is a negative term, too… So, from young I was determined to be like my father and mother. My mother used to pray that society would change, and my father took action to effect change. He fought for both sides to find a way forward together. Sadly, we’re still not there yet. We may not see it in my lifetime, but we cannot give up.

Religious upbringing

We had a little altar…in my parent’s room. We would say the rosary every single night. My father would sit there reading a book as he was [always] with us. It was the entire family, including the Hindu dimension of our family. We respected his religion and he respected our religion, so much so that when my mother [did] the nine churches, he would drive us to the nine churches…. That family togetherness shows the importance of family life and the need to respect, [and] yes, pray together. He may have sat there and prayed his own Hindu prayers, but he respected our [Catholic] faith [and] community.

Migration to and teaching in England

We were part of the Windrush generation. We went [to the United Kingdom] in 1967.  Kitchener and others had come on the Windrush in 1948… And although I went to work, I always wanted to teach. I grew up wanting to teach…… I went to Digby Stuart Catholic training college for my Bachelor of Education Degree and completed my Master’s degree next door at Froebel Institute (London University degrees). There was racism in aspects of the curriculum in these institutions  because at that time, you had people like Sir Cyril Burt and Arthur Jensen, social scientists who [were] putting forward the idea that Black people [were] genetically inferior. And it occurred to me that students in these institutions will be teaching Black children and will have negative ideas about their capability. My first year of teaching was in a Catholic school. Then I went to teach in a deprived area in London, Shepherd’s Bush, in a school where a lot of the children were being expelled… [I said at the time] anybody whom they wanted to expel, “give that student to me”. Often my class had children of different ages. Some of those students are my friends on Facebook after 40 years. I was then head-hunted.

There were two [landmark] government-initiated reports: West Indian Children in our Schools (1981), an Interim report by Anthony Rampton and his team; and the final report, Education for All (1985), produced by Lord Michael Swann and his team. That was the first government report that acknowledged there was racism in the education system….When the report came out, the Inner London Education Authority, where I worked as a teacher, interviewed me and a few others and I was appointed to lead a team called the Primary Curriculum Development Project. Our task was not only to promote success amongst Black children, but to raise in the awareness of staff, students etc of the nature and effects of racism. We sought to address racism within the school system. I was later appointed Inspector of Schools for Multi-ethnic/Anti-racist education (ILEA).

Racism in Church and State

There was a Caribbean chaplaincy (Caribbean Pastoral Service), in Westminster – led by Fr Brian Creak, a white priest, and Trinidadian-born Sr Monica Tywang, from the La Sagesse Congregation….Fr Rudy Mohammed, Father Clyde Harvey, Father John Theodore, and other Caribbean priests would go to England and support the chaplaincy. But there were problems, and Cardinal [Basil] Hume’s way of dealing with these was to establish an advisory group of ten persons, not only to examine the chaplaincy, but to advise him on what the Church’s commitment to the Black community should be. The first Chair was Dorothy Kuya. I became the Chair when she left.

We found that, at that time, there were lots of Black people who felt that [Black] children were only getting into what they called “sink schools”, schools that were failing, including some Catholic schools. If there were any Black children in prestige Catholic schools, they were mainly children whose parents were in the diplomatic corp. And so Cardinal Hume appointed me to sit as an Archdiocesan governor on one of the top Catholic schools, and there I truly understood how systemic racism operates.

Our report contains a picture taken at Westminster Cathedral on Holy Thursday, with the caption: Sea of white faces.

There was not a single Black priest in the Diocese. Some Black persons who spoke to us felt they were being called to become priests, but they could not get into seminaries. I addressed students and some staff at Allen Hall seminary in London and noted that at that time the only Black men there were, those who had come from abroad, paying a lot of money to study. They intended to return to their countries afterwards. There was one person of Jamaican origin, living in London, Howard James, who was determined to enter the priesthood. He was ordained deacon in Antigua and was eventually ordained a priest in London, having attended Allen Hall from 1985. He blessed me at his first Mass in London.  He is now a parish priest in Jamaica.

The advisory group produced a printed report/book containing our empirical findings – entitled, With you in Spirit? – questioning whether the Church, and society truly embraced the Black community. On the front cover of the book is of a photo of a Black Madonna and child – from a statue at Cardinal Hume’s palace.  Our report highlighted examples of racism in its many forms, in the Catholic Church and in society. We [must remember] that the Catholics who live in a racist society inevitably transfer [those negative mindsets] into the Church….Because of the interest shown by the media in our report, Cardinal Hume held a press conference, and a member of the media asked Cardinal Hume, “Do you think it’s true that there is racism in the Catholic Church and in society?” He responded saying, “if one example is true, it’s one too many.”