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Diane Bertrand on The Faith-Filled Restoration of OLM RC, Tortuga

By Kaelanne Jordan

The journey towards the restoration and rededication of Our Lady of Montserrat (OLM) Tortuga, Tuesday, August 22 asserts that God enables a lot of miracles, sometimes it just manifests out of nowhere.

“It’s just a faith journey of trusting God and the intercession of Our Blessed Mother and knowing that things will come,” said President of the Shrine Committee of OLM, Diane Bertrand in an interview with The Catholic News August 17.

She thanked spaces such as The Catholic News for providing the platform to speak to a wider audience “because most of the time when we speak, it’s to a parish community, but to give us a platform to reach across the Caribbean so that people will be able to see the value of the work, understand what we’re trying to achieve and if they have a common goal and vision, to buy in to that and to also send financial resources because nothing can be done without it.”

Bertrand highlighted one of the “weaknesses” of restoration projects is a lack of a maintenance project going forward. Additional funds are now needed to continue yearly maintenance.

“We’re in the middle of the tropical rainforest and our termites love the church as much as we do and so we have to keep them at bay, and to just maintain the beauty of the shrine,” Bertrand said.

In October 2022, after five years of preparation, restoration work, the total restoration cost is TT$4.8 million. Questioned on whether the option to demolish the 145-year-old building was a more cost-effective option, Bertrand gave compelling arguments for investing in the church’s heritage.

“If the persons listening to this are secular in their outlook and money counters or bean counters, you see, that means they’re already in a space that we are not operating. If you’re counting money, then you are running in parallel to where we are. We are in a spiritual space,” Bertrand emphasised.

She referenced in the Old Testament God gave very clear mandates for people to build the temple. “That’s why Jerusalem is so important to the Israelites and it’s so

important to Christians and Christianity across the globe now. People stream to Jerusalem because that is where God gave the instruction for people to come and worship. We are about worshipping God and doing everything in our power to create a space for people to come and worship God and that is what our shrine is about.”

Bertrand highlighted the Committee’s goal to pass the baton from generation to generation with every generation understanding they must maintain this space.

On the issue of continuity, Bertrand referred to the creation of the church’s comprehensive website www.ourladyofmontserrat.com and social media presence all aimed at forming a bridge to the younger generation and to those globally who may not easily be able to visit the church.

She also mentioned the Committee has been “approaching” the younger demographic between ages 30 and 55. She acknowledged, “that is an ongoing battle. I think it’s a struggle that all ministries of the Church are experiencing at this time. And we are just trying to be creative.”

Bertrand observed the majority of the parishioners are parents of young children. “So, for us it’s very difficult to recruit that age group because their focus is on raising families, which is a very important spiritual role,” she said.

To this end, Bertrand opined the demands of being on the Shrine Committee competes with hands-on parenting among that age group.

On the other hand, the Committee sees active participation among the younger age group of Confirmation groupings in various activities such as youth rallies, school Lenten retreats at the Shrine, talks and tours. Bertrand also spoke of youth involvement at the upcoming Church harvest September 10.

“It is like turning a super tanker, it is very slow, almost imperceptible but after all is said and done, whatever we do in the physical space the real work is the work of the Holy Spirit in the souls of the people who come and we are trusting that work will happen whether they’re young, old, … middle aged, it will happen at the appointed time and according to God’s will,” Bertrand said.

At the rededication Mass, Archbishop Charles Jason Gordon invited the Committee members to stand. The congregation responded with applause.

Bertrand said since being commissioned by Fr Steve Duncan, January 26, 2010, they marvel that 13 years later, they are still dedicated towards the restoration. She believes the common passion for Our Lady is the “glue that holds us together. We all love her dearly.”

Bertrand spoke of living her Marian spirituality at a young age in her Indian Walk, New Grant household and as a parishioner of Our Lady of Mt Carmel, Carapichaima. She said she was “totally delighted” that after marriage, migrating, and returning to T&T, she settled into another Marian parish. According to Bertrand, the whole village of Tortuga: Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Catholics, “everybody loves Our Lady.”

Asked to share a personal story related to the Shrine, she quipped, “Oh I have so many!” Bertrand recalled during the first restoration project in 2000–2004, a funding agency in Germany gave the Committee US$144,000 for restoration work.

“But for all kinds of strange and wonderful reasons, when you’re working with spiritual work you get a lot of obstacles, so the project was kind of faltering,” she began.

A powerful intercession

The organisation sent a representative to audit the project. If the representative was not pleased, he was authorised to withdraw the funds. Bertrand was the then treasurer.

“And of course, having heard that he was coming, our faithful started to pray. Whenever we’re doing these projects, every Sunday we do the novena to Our Lady of Montserrat but having heard that this man was coming to take back the money we ramped up the volume. Families were praying, groups of parishioners were praying, we were praying around the clock,” Bertrand recalled.

When the representative arrived, he asked to see the church. “And myself and two other women, Gloria Clement and Theresa Roberts, who were on the committee at that time were standing in the churchyard whispering to each other, hoping, and praying under our breath, ‘Lord Jesus, help us, send help, allow him not to take back this money’…”

At that time Our Lady was moved to the presbytery, two buildings away from the church, and faced the church.

“And all of a sudden, I looked up, and instead of Our Lady being 600 metres away… it was if she had bilocated and she was 6 feet away from us standing right there on her throne.

“And so, I looked up and I exclaimed, ‘oh my God, look Our Lady!’…There she was in beautiful splendour, and I can see the details on the lace on her dress, I can see the big veil, I can see her face, her facial features, she was sitting in her throne but 6 feet away from us.”

As the representative exited the church, he asked to visit Our Lady. He spent 10 minutes in prayer. “And when he came back down… he turned to me and he said, ‘I will not withdraw the money, but I want a detailed report from you’. And he gave me the financial things that he needed and left…and that money was the money that funded us and took us a very good distance,” Bertrand said.

She declared the incident a miracle, a powerful intercession of Our Blessed Mother.

“She stood with us, almost comforting us, and telling us do not be afraid, he will leave the money with you. And I felt it was significant that this man was so Marian centric that he wasn’t prepared to make a superficial financial decision based on money and the bottom line,” Bertrand said.

Responding to the question on how she envisions the legacy and impact of the Shrine Committee’s efforts in preserving and promoting devotion to Our Lady of Montserrat, Bertrand responded “I think we have been very successful in doing that.”

She highlighted when the Committee was commissioned in 2010, the legacy of the Shrine had fallen into “disrepair” as it was only known by a few people. “…now everywhere I go I hear ‘oh I love that church; I visited it and my pores raised’.”

Bertrand spoke of a Muslim gentleman working on the church who would comment he felt a sense of peace.

There was also a worker from Miami who worked on the stained-glass. “He came very heavy-hearted because he had some issues going on back in Miami. And I said to him ask Our Lady…. Anyway, he took about four hours, and he went and sat in the chapel, and he did that during the day and the night when he called home his wife told him there was a major shift in the issue, he was dealing with …. and I told him I think we had a miracle because of this, and he said we had a miracle because ‘I sat with Our Lady for four hours’.”

Bertrand underscored the Shrine continues to impact in very unexpected ways “in unexpected people”.

“And we have just seen a change in the community when a taxi driver would be passing by with passengers and he would see us working and say, ‘Hold this, and he drive off’. And people just provide and give to the effort knowing something great is happening within their souls, their lives and within their families, within the community,” Bertrand said.