May 3, marked the 169th anniversary of the arrival of the first
Portuguese as indentured immigrants in British Guiana. Today we
publish an article by Prof M N Menezes, RSM, on the Portuguese
and the faith they brought with them.
The Madeiran Portuguese first arrived in British Guiana as indentured
immigrants on May 3, 1835. Not only did they bring their agricultural
expertise but their faith as well. The Madeirans were profoundly
religious: their religion - a 'folksy' type of Catholicism which
they expressed with joy. They brought new life into the Catholic
Church, although during their first ten years and even beyond,
they suffered for want of Portuguese-speaking priests. Far away
from their island home they longed for the religious practices
to which they were accustomed.
need for Portuguese-speaking priests was communicated to the Portuguese
government through the Court of Policy, Governor Light as well
as the Colonial Office giving whole-hearted approval. However,
the Court of Policy hedged at financing the priests; for them
it would mean an additional burden on the finances of the colony.
Later Bishop Hynes ordained a Senhor Joaquin Antonio Correa, whom
he had brought out from Lisbon. The Portuguese wept for joy on
hearing for the first time since they left home, a sermon in Portuguese.
Over those years, without the benefit of Portuguese-speaking priests,
religious apathy had set in, yet Portuguese avid for religious
services had attended the Anglican church in the Essequibo
conventional congregation outside the Sacred Heart Church
on Palm Sunday.
on the East Coast, Demerara.
Portuguese had settled on the East Bank, Demerara, at Meadow Bank,
Ruimveldt, and Agricola. It was at Meadow Bank where Bishop Hynes
had made the centre of the Catholic Church in British Guiana that
the Catholic Mission was handed over to the Jesuits in 1857.
The Superior, Fr James Etheridge, SJ, later Bishop, had brought
with him two Portuguese-speaking priests, Fr Emiliani and Fr Negri,
later joined by Fr Schembri who became known as "the real
apostle" of the Portuguese. With the arrival of these priests
the Catholic Church advanced rapidly, and what was called the
great revival of Catholicism took place. In 1861 Sacred Heart
Church, Main Street, was built specifically for the Portuguese,
to the great annoyance of the English-speaking Jesuits. Other
churches began to rise all over the colony - at Malgretout on
the East Bank, Demerara, in Essequibo and all along the East Coast.
the railway extended from Plaisance to Mahaica between the 1840s
and 1860s, temporary "church stations" mushroomed along
the coast. In 1877 the Church of St John the Baptist, Plaisance,
which became one of the leading churches along the East Coast,
was opened by Fr Casati who two years later established the boys'
orphanage there. Plaisance became noted for its boisterous festivals.
Madeirans were accustomed to celebrating their religious festas
with joyful abandon and with much pomp and splendour. For immigrants
settling in a foreign land, the continuation of their tradition
through an expression of customs and culture in their own language,
enhanced their security and offset their cultural alienation.
The feasts of Christmas, Pentecost, of the Mother of God and their
favourite saints were celebrated in British Guiana with the same
exuberance as they were in Madeira. Of all the religious customs
transmitted by the Portuguese, the Christmas Novena continues
to hold sway in the hearts of all Catholic Guyanese of every ethnic
Madeiran custom was the involvement of the men, women and children
in confraternities, guilds and societies. Prominent among these
societies was the Portuguese Benevolent Society, established in
1872 for the relief of widows, orphans, and for the mutual support
of members in sickness, unemployment, old age and imprisonment.
The society was also concerned for the education of the children
of their members.
general, the Portuguese were concerned for the preservation of
their language. Throughout the nineteenth century the majority
of Portuguese continued to speak the language among themselves;
their songs, their drama recitals were all rendered in Portuguese.
There were also a number of Portuguese newspapers, O Voz Portuguez,
A Uniao Portugueze, Chronica Semanal, O Lusitano, The Watchman
and The Liberal, among others. Not only did these newspapers keep
the Portuguese au courant with the business of the day, but they
also kept them in touch with events in Madeira and Portugal. Thus
the Portuguese needed to maintain their language. Much to the
chagrin of the English Jesuits they were not encouraged to go
to the already established Catholic schools. Fr Schembri, on the
other hand, feared that the Portuguese children would not only
lose their language in English-speaking schools but their faith
as well. Thus, there were established Portuguese schools for boys
and girls. These schools taught other subjects as well as Portuguese
- piano, dancing, reading, writing, arithmetic and craft work.
1890 the Portuguese College, giving a classical type of education,
was established, Bishop Butler agreeing with the view that, "To
bring up children in their own language was best." Those
arguing for Portuguese schools were of the wealthier class who
pointed out that ignorance of the English language had not been
a deterrent to their economic success.
the nineteenth century the Catholic Church was closely identified
with its Portuguese congregation. The building of the churches
in the villages had been mostly financed and supported by the
Portuguese. They could well afford it as by the 1880s they "owned
the bulk of the property of the Colony outside the Sugar Plantations."
They also collected and paid the excise revenue amounting to $600,000
annually. In nineteenth-century British Guiana the rise of the
Portuguese to economic prominence was notable indeed. They were
prominent in both business and Church affairs, and there is much
evidence to prove that they contributed to the support of the
Church both back in Madeira and in their adopted land.
other respects the Portuguese culture began to wane. The movement
away from the language had begun, and although a number of wealthy
Portuguese continued to re-turn to Madeira on a visit to relatives
or to see their ancestral home for the first time, the trend was
to send their sons to Britain for further education in the professions.
Returning doctors and lawyers brought back their skills and the
Anglo-Saxon culture as well, which influenced home and church.
By the early part of the twentieth century Church celebrations
had begun to lose their early exuberance.
was a result not only of the new breed of Portuguese and of priests,
but of the burgeoning cosmopolitan nature of the Catholic Church
embracing other ethnic groups through example and the influence
of the schools.
of the religious legacy, however, lived on and was passed on -
in the Christmas novena, in the guilds, confraternities and societies
which continued to make an impact on Catholic life.
is no doubt that the growth and expansion of the Catholic Church
in British Guiana owed much to the Madeiran emigrants who brought
to the colony not only their agricultural and commercial expertise,
but their deep and joyful faith.
Note: All credits to the author and Stabroek News.]