In the first of a series of articles by Westminster priests who live and work outside the diocese, Fr Howard James shares his experience of ministering in two Jamaican parishes.
The year was 1997. My time at the Catholic Missionary Society was drawing to a close, and I took the bold step of asking Cardinal Hume if I could go to Jamaica for a year. He agreed, which surprised me considering he had said he wanted me ‘nearby’. This began my ‘Apostolic’ travels in the Caribbean.
I spent two years in Jamaica. I returned to London but after three years I was asked in 2003 to become the Administrator for the Cathedral in St John’s Basseterre, Antigua. After three and half years as Administrator, I returned to Westminster. Seven years later, in 2013 it was agreed that I return to Jamaica, to one of the ‘original’ parishes where I had been in 1998-2000.
I left my parish of St John the Evangelist, Islington in July 2013 and returned to Jamaica where I am presently assigned, in the Diocese of Montego Bay where I care for two churches: Our Lady of Fatima, Ocho Rios, and St Ann and St Anthony’s Moneague, a small mission church.
Montego Bay is one of three Catholic dioceses in Jamaica. There is some irony here as Jamaica is less than 5% Catholic with a population of 2.8 million. Trinidad, with a population of approximately 2 million, where over 30% are Catholic, has one Archdiocese. Our diocese has a local Bishop: Burchell McPerson and four Jamaican priests, two Ugandans who have been incardinated, two Filipinos, two Poles, a Pakistani, a Fijian, a Tanzanian, and an American. We are a very mixed bunch but we get on very well.
Our Lady of Fatima was built nearly 42 years ago by the Jesuit Fathers to cater to the needs of local people and the visitors to the tourist resort of Ocho Rios.
My work is very hands-on in both places where Catholicism, though respected, is seen by some people as the ‘magic/rich’ church, so we have people coming for Holy Water or to ask to have their houses blessed. They are not Catholics but they believe that the magic and power of the Catholic priest will drive the evil and spirits away. I do a lot of visiting the sick and housebound. I celebrate Mass four times a week in ‘Fatima’ and three times a month in St Anthony’s.
I organise retreats, Bible study, work and guide two new Parish Councils. Even though I try very hard to help my people to be self-reliant, sometimes things do not get done unless Father says it or does it. I am finally succeeding in moving our parishes away from that type of behaviour.
I started an education fund, in 1998, to help our children to attend school. A friend took a picture of the church and made it into postcards. He suggested that we sell these to the many visitors who come to the church and use the proceeds to help the children. I am pleased to say that that programme has continued and is still in operation. Many children have benefitted from this fund. My family has set up a foundation to help children at our alma mater. Every year we help between five and six young people. We raise the money in the UK and we have been doing this for nearly 20 years. I visit the school two or three times a year. I meet with the Head and Guidance Counselling staff and twice with the children. I meet once with the children and their parents. It is demanding but very fruitful. In the time that we have been doing this one young person has become a doctor, and many teachers and other professionals. God is good.
We have been working hard with our young people and I am pleased with the work done by our youth leaders and catechists. They have basically come from nowhere to read at Mass, serve Mass, and organise and sell items to help with their ministry. We have an outreach programme to help people pay for prescriptions for medicines, food for their families, money for transportation, and other essentials.
Most of the parishioners don’t live very close to the church and so visiting, either the sick or for social reasons, can take a long while as it involves long journeys.
The church is built overlooking the sea and is very pretty. Many people, local and overseas visitors, come here to get married. In some cases I meet the couple the day before the wedding. The ability to work with different people and to be able to be flexible is a great help. My office overlooks the sea and when people visit they usually comment on the beauty of the place and they ask how I ever get any work done. Well, my desk looks away from the sea, so I don’t really ‘see’ the sea.
The demands on the priest are great and I thank God for the experience and opportunities that I have had to serve him.
The Diocese of Westminster seems a world away. Parish work has so many similarities and yet some many differences. The most important aspect of my life, in both places, is to guide and help people in their relationship with God and how that is lived day by day. I offer an invitation to anyone who would like to visit. I have a spare bedroom and you are welcome.
Please remember me, and my people, in your prayers.