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Preachers of the Caribbean

Monday, August 05, 2019

Preachers of the Caribbean Fr Peter Hunter OP describes his recent sojourn at the Dominican house in Jamaica

A Holiday? No!

When I told people I was going out to teach in the seminary in Kingston, Jamaica, a common response was to be jealous of the good time I was going to have. My own reaction to being told I was going was mostly to feel a little anxious: four months is a long time to be away from friends, family and familiarity.

But of course, both of these reactions are foolish. Jamaica is more than a holiday destination. People are people. Jamaicans need education and religious ministry, lectures and sacraments and retreats, which is to say they need teachers and priests who work just as hard as they do in England.

On the other hand, if I left friends and family behind, it wasn't to go to a place where people would be distant and unfriendly, but a place where I was welcomed and loved. I made many friends, and it was much harder to leave than it was to go in the first place.

The Dominicans in Jamaica

The Dominican house in Jamaica is right near the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI) and just two friars live there permanently. Fr Clifton Harris is parish priest to two very different, vibrant parishes: 'St Thomas Aquinas, the parish of the university, with a more middle-class congregation; and Christ the King in August Town, one of the poorest parishes of the city. Fr Irenaeus Vincent is chaplain to UWI and the University of Technology. Since there is more work than two friars can do, they rely on visitors from elsewhere, of which I was one.'

Being a priest in Jamaica was a joy and a challenge. Jamaica is outwardly a very religious country, with radio DJs on the ordinary public stations talking about God, and shops painted with psalms or other quotes from the Bible, but unfortunately, it is secularising very quickly, and the new generation is almost as likely to be critical and sceptical of Christianity as their European counterparts. Catholics are also a very small minority, just a few percents of the population. So people don't find religion as odd as they sometimes do in Oxford, but being a priest is still something of an oddity and there are significant challenges for the future of the Church, ones which only a few people are very actively addressing.

Preachers of the Caribbean

Seminary Teaching

My main job was to teach in the ­newly-revived seminary in Kingston. I was teaching a mix of philosophical subjects, mostly rather similar to my teaching in Oxford. I found the students receptive and intelligent. The big difference from my normal experience was that students have so little access to books. It was interesting to try to find a way to help students to learn in that environment when here, we mostly ­provide them with lists of things to read and expect them to get on with it. I am working with a friend who helped to create the Dominican University online and with local people to provide free electronic resources to help with this problem.

Two Different Parishes

I was also privileged to help in the two parishes. Liturgy was lively and often long, and people enjoyed hearing a good sermon. The two congregations were very different. Perhaps the best way of describing this is to recount how two women in the two congregations reacted to my leaving. In Thomas Aquinas, someone said to me, 'If you don't come back, we'll come to London and fetch you.' In August Town, a parishioner said to Clifton, 'Fr Peter thinks he's leaving on Thursday? We know how to block roads in August Town!'

People in August Town live very challenging lives, with a level of poverty and violence that is hard to describe. We work to alleviate that, of course. One of our province's charities supported an extremely bright young student in paying for her university studies, and we also give her and her fellow students some space to work in the parish complex. We run a basic school, which is more or less what would be called a kindergarten here, where children get an excellent start to their education because of dedicated teachers, but also get a good, hot meal every day. We will be trying to find further funding to support the work there.

Our work in Jamaica is exciting, challenging and sometimes difficult, but my four months flew by, and I look forward to more work out there in the future, God willing.

'St Martin’s Missions' is our fund for supporting the friars' work in the Caribbean. To donate, please click here.


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