By Lara Pickford-Gordon
In December this year, the Our Lady of Mt Carmel RC church celebrates 150 years since the structure was completed. This small church located in the village on the north coast has its origins in the early history of the country and the Catholic Church.
Spain surrendered Trinidad to the British in 1797 and the territory officially became a British colony in 1802. Blanchisseuse did not have a name when British surveyor Captain Frederic Mallet was charting the area.
To identify the spot, he called it “Ladies River” after seeing some women washing clothes in the river.
The arrival of French settlers after the Royal Cedula of Population 1783 saw the name being changed to Blanchisseuse, French for “washerwoman”.
Article 1 of Cedula required all foreigners, subjects of other nations in alliance with Spain who wished to settle or desirous of settling in Trinidad “shall sufficiently prove to the Government thereof, they are of the Roman Catholic persuasion, without which they shall not be allowed, to settle in the same…” (Carmichael, 1976, p.363). There was therefore, a Catholic presence from the early days in Blanchisseuse although the area was remote.
Historian Michael Anthony (1988, p 17) says, “The people of Blanchisseuse can certainly be looked upon as the most courageous of the early settlers in this country, and Blanchisseuse remained for long the most isolated of Trinidad villages.”
The Catholic French settlers would have wanted to practice their faith so having a place to worship together would have been a need despite the hardship of the environment with no roads and little infrastructures. To get to the area, one had to travel by boat, horse or on foot.
By 1840 there was a chapel erected on crown lands near the police station, but this was discontinued by Archbishop Joachim Gonin OP (1869–1889) for another site, the present location.
In 1847, three acres of land left by Jean Charles Beatrice was handed over by Governor George Harris (1846–1854) to Archbishop Richard Patrick Smith (1850–1852). However, by 1870 the Crown [colonial government] wanted to confiscate the land which at the time was worth $395.
Despite this, the church of Our Lady of Mt Carmel was built at a cost $330.59 in 1873. Funding came through a government grant of $300.
An appeal was made December 26, 1874, by Luciano de Giacoma to Archbishop Gonin for $200 to outfit the church. Archbishop Gonin planned to approach the Governor to contribute $100.
By October 8, 1875, the sum of $97.80 was allotted for a 16×16 ft sacristy (Archdiocesan Archives). The parish of Blanchisseuse was established in 1880 (Anthony, 1988).
A glimpse into what the Blanchisseuse area and church looked like is given by Charles Kingsley, priest of the Church of England, university professor, social reformer, historian, novelist, and poet. He was a friend of Governor Sir Arthur Gordon and during a visit to Trinidad in 1869, was invited to see Blanchisseuse (Kingsley 1872 as cited in Anthony, 1988).
They trekked to the area over the northern range from Caura. It was a difficult route and they had to deal with the obstacles of the natural terrain, cutting through trees and “slipping and sliding” along the way.
By the time Kingsley and Sir Gordon got near the village with their horses and helpers they were exhausted. They had to walk down a steep incline “hopping and slipping from ledge to mud and from mud to ledge”.
Kingsley saw two rows of clay and timber houses, fruit trees and vegetables. A resident ringing a bell notified the community of the arrival of the visitors and there was much excitement.
Kingsley described the church, “Their old church, a clay and timber thing of their own handiwork, had become ruinous, and the bell was put into requisition to ring in His excellency and his muddy suite” (p 17).
The priest who met the group spoke in French, telling the visitors they were not expected until the following day. He asked that an address to be delivered on behalf of the residents be deferred until then.
The Catholic Church acquired additional land in Blanchisseuse. Archbishop Gonin made a final payment of $3.72, August 8, 1879, for 4.5 acres of Crown land. The sum of $200 was allocated in 1887 for the construction of a presbytery. Commencement could not begin until permission was only given by the state in 1888 for lumber to be cut for the building.