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From faith and fire: A book on our churches and chapels

By Robert Clarke, Researcher/writer


The fire was the story: The blaze of 1944 that razed St Joseph’s Convent, killing four nuns, and causing priests to scamper to rescue others, dashing from the flames with semi-conscious Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny cradled in their arms.

Robert Clarke

The tragedy made it into a book on the preservation of churches and chapels because it destroyed the convent’s original chapel. The present chapel was built with funds from a grief-stricken public, moved by the disaster and animated by the subsequent fundraising effort sponsored by the archbishop.

The Trinidad Guardian ran the fundraising updates – $6.03 from Teachers and Students of George’s Evening Class, $180.72 from the proceeds of a netball match, 50 cents from Bernice Jones—until the fund topped $50,000 and the current chapel was built.

Photographer and former St Joseph’s Convent History teacher, Maria Nunes, told me the story of the conflagration and supplied me with the related newspaper articles.

She suggested that she and I were probably the only people alive who had read the details, despite the plaque that commemorates the “destructive fire” at the top of the Convent’s main staircase. That was good enough for me. It was a tale waiting to be told again.

Such good fortune is sometimes the making of a book, or in this case, a story within a story within a book.

Research turned up other good stories, of course. At Mt St Benedict, I was enlightened by the story of Brother Gabriel Mokveld—otherwise known as ‘the man who built the Mount’—a Dutch monk with an architecture degree who designed a chapel so solid that it has required little intervention from the Benedictine brothers in its 70-year history.

Then there was the anecdote of the near disappearance of a wooden statue of St Patrick by restorer Judi Sheppard. When a flood flattened Judi’s gate and threatened to sweep St Patrick away, her husband shouted a warning, and Judi predicted that they would “have to go quite Sea Lots to recover him,” moments before St Patrick lodged against the water tanks and was saved.

A coffee table book on the restoration and renovation of churches and chapels was the brainchild of architect and photographer Brian Lewis, who got His Grace’s buy-in.

Brian then reached out to his erstwhile collaborator, creative director, and graphic designer Melanie Archer, who has since won a Caribbean Advertising Federation award for the book’s design. Melanie connected with me.

Brian’s photography is the backbone of Manifestations, but near the end of the process, he admitted that the intense labour of several weeks had almost killed him. My process was more straightforward, yet without the research of Dominican Sr Marie Thérèse Rétout I would have struggled to put my hands on the histories of many of the 13 churches and chapels.

Her Parish Beat—a collection of stories written for The Catholic News and compiled as a book—saved me countless hours in archdiocesan archives. (Sr Rétout is on the cusp of her 102nd birthday, and still living at Holy Name Convent)

From that compiled history, it was a fairly straightforward process of interviews that started with parish priests, moved on to the parishioners who raised the funds and drove the restoration projects, and ended with the architects and artisans who had done the actual work.

Among the stories I stumbled upon was the death of government architect, Mr Baccarcich, who met his demise while working on the Holy Name Convent Chapel—“a gem of Italian Renaissance architecture.”

Baccarcich died after falling from the roof during chapel construction in 1905. During a later renovation, an altar that had served the nuns down at the Chacachacare leprosarium, where they risked contagion while caring for the lepers, was disassembled, and transported to Port of Spain by obliging fishermen, then reinstalled as a second altar and reconsecrated by Archbishop Edward Gilbert.

As the book’s title implies, it was faith that moved parishioners to extraordinary efforts to build and maintain their sacred spaces.

At St Patrick’s in Newtown, no fundraising effort seemed beyond reach. They hosted ‘Kaiso Under the Stars’ and organised ‘Men who can Cook’, to restore their church under the direction of consulting architect Robert Las Heras, who set right the wrongs of a well-intentioned earlier renovation that had led to significant water damage.

At Our Lady of Montserrat in Tortuga, Diane Bertrand and the Shrine Committee waged an extended communications campaign to convince the national population that their Heritage-listed church was worth preserving, as “the only wooden Catholic church in the island”.

Father Matthew D’Hereaux at St Joseph RC spoke about the importance of his own communication in driving the fundraising process. When damaged wooden interior columns were repaired and revarnished in the same shade, the donation envelopes dried up. “They could not see what was done,” commented Father D’Hereaux. “It looked exactly the same.”

But when a side chapel opened with new accoutrements and artist-designed additions, the donation envelopes flowed again. “They could identify with transformation,” added Father. “People need to see the work.”

At St Mary’s in St James, displaced parishioners not only returned when the church reopened, but the church’s catchment area expanded to pull in fresh faces. That followed a lengthy renovation that had once seemed like it might never end.

So many of our churches and chapels have great stories. A few are in this book, which is a testament to the faith of church communities and a tribute to the architects, engineers, tradesmen, and artisans who have used their talents to keep these buildings proudly aloft.

Besides, as designer Melanie Archer might say, the book is a great way to visit some of our churches and chapels without leaving home.


Manifestations of Faith is available at Paper Based bookstore, Con Brio, Metropolitan Books, online at, and at other select bookstores nationwide.