By Kaelanne Jordan
St Benedict’s College, La Romaine, was largely the brainchild of one Benedictine monk, Dom Basil Matthews who, having emerged on the public stage of a changing Trinidad and Tobago society, was determined to make his own contribution.
However, as a monk outside his monastic community, he was not a monk without a community. Many of the initiatives he took in the school, particularly in his emphasis on sport, served to foster a spirit of togetherness and community.
One must therefore ask: were the initiatives taken at St Benedict’s College, La Romaine, so taken because Dom Basil was a Benedictine, or in spite of the fact that he was a Benedictine?
This was the crux of Abbot John Pereira’s OSB contribution for the June 21 symposium at the Southern Academy for the Performing Arts (SAPA) in honour of the life and works of Professor Basil Matthews (1911–1999), former monk, sociologist, educator, scholar, sport administrator.
The ‘tribute to a trailblazer’ was hosted by the Caribbean Sociological Association in collaboration with St Benedict’s College.
Abbot Pereira suggested that Dom Basil was motivated by the Benedictine spirituality which formed him, that he used this spirituality in developing the College, and that he adapted the Benedictine tradition in education to meet the demands of the time in which he lived.
Benedictine spirituality, the Abbot emphasised, has a dual effect. In the first instance, it roots the individual/community in a radical, ongoing search for God. Secondly, it heightens one’s consciousness of a sense of place, due to the vow of stability.
“When applied to education, a Benedictine approach, when so perceived, must employ a critical reading of what constitutes the real needs of the place, and address them in the curriculum,” Abbot Pereira said.
For many years, La Romaine had been a plantation area with a working-class population. In the early 1950s, there was no school for the villagers, and many of the children attended an old primary school at Rambert Village. Between San Fernando and the deep south, there was no established secondary school at the time.
The principle of free secondary education for all was only to be accepted in the Colony from 1960, and with the idea existing only for a restricted number (through College Exhibition Examinations), by and large, secondary education was a luxury for the privileged class.
The then existing denominational schools in the south: Naparima Boys’, Naparima Girls’, Presentation Boys’ (formerly St Benedict’s), and St Joseph’s Convent were all prestige schools with a limited clientele.
“And just like the Nazareth of Jesus, it may have been asked: ‘Can anything good come from that place?’ (Jn 1:46). Not only was Dom Basil convinced that something good could come out of La Romaine, but he was prepared to prove it,” said Abbot Pereira.
In late 1954, Dom Basil had been involved in a series of public debates with Dr Eric Williams on the role of the Church in education. Whereas Dr Williams was advocating State-controlled education, Dom Basil was arguing philosophically for Church involvement. Dom Basil was willing to demonstrate his point, not merely on the academic or philosophical platform, but also in the practical arena.
According to Abbot Pereira, the virgin soil of La Romaine provided “an ideal setting” in which to cultivate that seed which was sprouting in his mind.
In 1956, Dom Basil had embarked on an ambitious and comprehensive project that had the full support of Archbishop Finbar Ryan OP. His aim was to create a Christian school that would have as its purpose the formation of “…the whole man – in his body, his mind, his will, his heart and his soul and to mould together all these human parts into the coordinated whole of a perfect man, a man after the pattern of Christ himself, the Divine Master, a little Lord in God’s great creation.”1
In 1955, with the purchase effected, an old plantation residence on the land was re-divided and used as a primary school, and school chapel. Mass was celebrated every Sunday for the people.
The idea of a secondary school for the district had fired the imagination of the parents in La Romaine and further south. Soon many of them and some generous merchants were coming forward to assist Dom Basil in making his dream a reality. The College was finally completed at a cost of $250,000. It opened its doors for the first time September 11, 1956 with an enrolment of 220 students, a staff of two and Dom Basil as Principal.
St Benedict’s College, Abbot Pereira shared, was never perceived by the community at Tunapuna as a Benedictine project i.e., a project originating from the monastery, and Dom Basil’s involvement in it was not always positively regarded.
When Fr Maurus Maingot died in 1959, Dom Basil was suggested to succeed him as parish priest of San Fernando, with the intention of “dissociating” him from the College.
“However, this move was resisted by Archbishop Ryan who had great admiration for the work that was being done at the College,” Abbot Pereira revealed.
The establishing of St Benedict’s College
He said it was Dom Basil’s desire to encourage greater Benedictine participation from the community at Tunapuna. He arranged a scholarship in Business Education for Dom John Osborne OSB with the understanding that, on completion, he would teach at the College.
In 1959, Dom John left for Pitman’s College in London, and after a year and a half, having attained his Diploma in Business Education, he was employed at the College as a special teacher. He was also appointed Dean of Discipline and Deputy-Principal.
Dom John’s presence in the school, Abbot Pereira explained, helped to create the impression that the College was indeed a Benedictine one, or, at least, tending in that direction.
To attain this ideal, the programme at the College was divided into three parts: Religious and moral; scholastic; and social and cultural.
Religion played a pivotal role in the school. The motto, “Nihil Omnino Christo” (Christ Above All) was designed to highlight the primacy of Christ in the life of the student.
Religion was taught by Dom John and by other members of the teaching staff. There was also weekly Mass and Confession, the daily rosary, and religious groups like the Legion of Mary. Non-Catholics were given classes in Ethics.
The scholastic aspect was supplied in the broad-based curriculum, which included both general and practical studies. The social and cultural area included physical training, organised sports and games, The College Orchestra, the College Choir, Drama and the Literacy and Debating Society.
There was much emphasis placed at the College on the themes of Community and Family Life. Dom Basil thus drew from his own Benedictine background, where the ideal of community life is a key motif.
“He was aware that the country-style living, the rural background of most of the students had provided them with a certain perception of family living and he was prepared to build on that. The fact that many of their homes had absentee fathers, inspired him to stress Family Economics as an important subject in the curriculum,” Abbot Pereira said.
He added that Dom Basil was aware that there is more to a game of football than what meets the eye. The human qualities of discipline, dedication, enthusiasm, and perseverance, which are necessary ingredients in attaining success in the sporting arena are the same qualities necessary to attain progress in the spiritual life.
“His emphasis on sport at St Benedict’s was thus an attempt to make of it a new instrument of education.”
In 1966, the student body was 800 and the staff had risen to 40. By this time, Dom Basil was the only Benedictine at the College, as Dom John had resigned in 1964 in order to devote himself exclusively to pastoral affairs in the sub-district of La Romaine and Rambert Village.
In 1968, Dom Basil left St Benedict’s College and began lecturing at various universities in the US. From 1970 to 1977, he had a teaching career in the social sciences department at Howard University.
Dom Basil’s resignation “closed the chapter on the involvement of Benedictines in secondary education in south Trinidad.”
The name of the school, however, has been retained. This, Abbot Pereira emphasised, serves as a reminder that at one time in the past, “a certain Benedictine monk had passed that way, and had made a contribution to the education of the people there….”
1 Basil Matthews, ‘The Principal’s Address’, given at the Solemn Blessing and Formal Opening of St Benedict’s College Sports Pavilion at College Commons. La Romaine, 7th July 1963.
Symposium in Honour of Professor Basil Matthews (1911-1999)
The entire symposium is available on YouTube. Search: Caribbean Sociological Association. A link is available on the Facebook page of St Benedict’s College
9 a.m. – National Anthem
– Jeremy Granado
9.05 a.m. – School Song
– Trevon Wright
9.10 a.m. – Opening Remarks
– Dr Roy McCree
9.20 a.m. – Greetings-Jennifer Manwarring (Catholic Education Board)
9.25 a.m. – Opening Remarks-Gregory Quan Kep (Acting Principal, St Benedict’s College)
9.30 a.m. – Keynote Address-Reginald Renwick
10.15 a.m. – Question and Answer
10.30 a.m. – Abbot John Pereira
11 a.m. – Winston Dookeran
11.30 a.m. – Gail Guy
12 –1 p.m. – (Lunch)
1.15 p.m. – Ferdie Ferreira
1.40 p.m. – Steve David
2 p.m. – Musical Interlude
2.05 p.m. – ‘I look to you’
– Dr Justin Zephrine
2.15 p.m. – Mungal Patasar and Pantar
3 – 4.30 p.m. – Book Launch – ‘Remembering the Life and Times of the Dom’ by Kasala Kamara
3.05 p.m. – Moderator – Dr Roy McCree
3.05 – 3.50 p.m. – Reviewer- Burton Sankeralli
3.50 – 4.15 p.m. – Author- Kasala Kamara
4.45 p.m. – Vote of Thanks – Dr Sacha John Charles-Baynes