Book Review by Prof Bridget Brereton
Residential homes for at-risk children have been in the news recently, and mostly not for good reasons. So it is refreshing, and interesting, to read a book published to commemorate the 150th anniversary (1871–2021) of St Dominic’s Children’s Home in Belmont, Port of Spain.
This is a handsome publication of the coffee-table kind, lavishly illustrated with many full colour images along with some interesting older drawings or photos; it is a visually attractive book, definitely a collector’s item.
We learn a great deal about the origins of the Belmont Orphanage, as it used to be called. Around 1870, a full generation after the end of African enslavement and the start of indentured Indian immigration, many internal migrants from the rural areas were crowding into Port of Spain. Among them were children living on the streets, apparently abandoned even if they were not strictly orphans.
A French Catholic priest in charge of Rosary Church in Belmont, Fr Mariano Forestier (1831–1901), decided to start a small home for some of them.
At this period, the dominant Catholic Church was still very much the ‘French Church’, its priests nearly all from France and its leading lay persons from the French Creole community.
So it’s not surprising that Fr Forestier was helped by these people. Land at the top of the ‘Morne’ in Belmont was donated by a prominent French Creole gentleman, Louis Le Roy, and ladies from the same community begged for funds for the first buildings and helped to care for the children.
By the end of 1871, Fr Forestier had gathered 11 children, boys, and girls, in his modest structure.
This same French connection led the Catholic Archbishop to request that the Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena from France should take over the management of the Orphanage. They had first come to Trinidad in 1868 to manage the asylum for lepers (as they were then called) in Cocorite.
The Sisters became responsible for the Orphanage in 1876—by then there were 66 children—and are still there.
Some of the valuable historical information in this book is taken from the history of the Dominican Sisters in Trinidad, Called To Serve, by Sr Marie Thérèse Rétout OP (who worked at the Home for two decades, and was over 100 years old in 2021).
Over the years, more buildings were erected at the Belmont site and the numbers of children increased steadily, with over 400 by the time Fr Forestier died in 1901. By the 1950s the French nuns were beginning to leave or die, and younger local Sisters gradually replaced them at the Home.
The first Trinidadian manager, Sr Gloria Marie Laurie OP, was appointed in 1963, symbolising the coming of national independence. New “annexes” to the Belmont Home were established at Barataria (Sunnyhill) and Arima (Plainview) in the 1970s and 1980s, intended for family units where siblings could be cared for together.
For many decades, most of the children went to St Martin’s RC school on the compound, but gradually more of them attended Catholic schools in and around Port of Spain, and St Martin’s was closed in 2003.
We learn about new developments and initiatives in childcare being undertaken at the Home, such as the emphasis on keeping siblings together and encouraging regular contacts with family members.
Other initiatives include the Shalom Centre, a “youth friendly safe space” at the Home, the Dominican Youth Movement, and the Alternative Education Centre, established in 1995 as a “remedial and vocational” school to meet the special needs of some of the children who were struggling in regular schools.
The Home has always had a busy Trades School, where the boys and girls were and are taught a very wide range of skilled trades, including baking and printing. More recently, a Youth Agricultural Programme has been added to the Trades School.
One of the outstanding successes of the Home has been its musical education programme. It has produced some of T&T’s most outstanding musicians: Roy Cape, Frankie Francis, Ron Berridge, Lord Melody, Merchant, Trinidad Rio, Carl Bariteau, Pedro Lezama, Sel Duncan, Anthony Prospect, Edouard Wade, and many others.
As Kim Johnson wrote in a 1996 newspaper article reproduced in the book, “in a country lacking a conservatory, for many years the orphanage produced most of the musically literate men in the country”.
In addition to music, the visual arts, crafts, Carnival mas and Nativity plays are among the cultural activities pursued by the children of the Home, often taught by former residents or other volunteers.
This is a book intended to celebrate the Home and its service to the thousands of children who have lived there. There are hints of difficult times, for instance when lay staff members were unionised in the 1970s and 1980s, and when for a time the Home came under the Statutory Authorities Services Commission (it is now under the Children’s Authority).
I found just one brief mention of some former residents feeling aggrieved about “punishment” or “discipline” from the staff. But certainly, I finished this informative and attractive book deeply impressed with the achievements of this pioneering faith-based institution and its contribution to T&T’s social fabric over 150-plus years.
Books can be purchased at:
St Finbar’s Church, Diego Martin
Mt St Benedict, Tunapuna