More about Greyfriars, Port of Spain

A plea for Greyfriars – from the Trinidad Express

 

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WORK HALTED: Workers on the Greyfriars Church compound in Port of Spain last week before a stop work notice was served by the City Corporation.

 

Drowned by the nation’s futile wailing over the atrocities in Brasso Seco were the events in downtown Port of Spain last week, when work began to erase a piece of Trinidad’s history. How far the demolition crew would have gone, had it not been for the protest of a small group that forced the intervention of the City Corporation, is anyone’s guess.

So as it is now, the gutted Greyfriars Church still stands on Frederick Street, but the roof of its adjacent church hall is gone and it’s likely that only State intervention can save what is one of the city’s oldest properties, held in the fist of a real estate developer whose interest may be more about money than national heritage.

In the meantime, the usual criticism has come. Some want to know why these “annoying” people from Citizens for Conservation are blocking progress. Is just an old building they planning to lick down. No big deal. Christian people again. There are more important and scary problems being faced by this country, to care about an empty church and a few graves.

But anyone with interest in this country’s past should take note of the appeal of Eileen Brodie Hubbard. Here is a woman who lives in England and whose roots go back to a place you probably didn’t know existed—Selkirk, Scotland—and who has never set foot on this island, but who can tell us exactly what we stand to lose should the church fall. Hubbard spent eight years researching her family ancestry. She discovered recently that her great-great-grandfather was the Rev George Brodie, one of the earliest missionaries from the Church of Scotland, who ministered at Greyfriars in Trinidad from 1840 to his death in 1875.

Then she learned that the church was intact. Only to find that it had been sold.

She penned this lament some weeks ago. “May I add my thoughts to the debate about the recent sale of Greyfriars Church and express fears for the future of the building, the grave markers, the memorials, the records and all the historic documents. As the building has been sold, we must hope that negotiations currently taking place can resolve this situation to its best possible conclusion. I believe the grave markers have already been removed from the site. Three were placed following infant deaths and have links to the earliest missionaries, Rev Alexander Kennedy, who founded Greyfriars, and Rev George Brodie, who continued his work there from 1850.

I wonder if any thought was given to the possibility of contacting the living relatives of these little infants in order to determine their wishes about the future of the markers. This would require the will to accept that such a connection to the founders and to the history of Greyfriars is significant. Sadly it seems those responsible are unwilling or unable to see their relevance. The lack of regard for the grave markers raises concerns about the contents of the building which are to be removed for storage to St Ann’s.

Can we trust that documentation and all recorded material, said to be in a fragile state in the 90’s, will be sensitively catalogued, restored and preserved? Such a cavalier approach to the sale of the building does not give confidence that this will happen. The memorials too are to be removed to St Ann’s. Again I raise fears for their future, particularly as I am aware of a comment made by the member of the church responsible for the transfer of these special items. This comment seemed to suggest that ‘Buildings and memorials are not what is important: what is required is ‘Congregation and worship of the Lord’. If this is a fair representation, this is alarming!!

I am frankly appalled at this attitude that chooses to ignore history and refuses to acknowledge the incredible endeavours of those early ministers whose work was truly a ‘Mission’. To them it was about ‘serving the Lord’ and establishing a church to support the community. In creating a place of worship they also provided an opportunity for education and a refuge for displaced protestants escaping persecution.

Both the early ministers were unstinting and outspoken in their support of those not free to worship as they chose. Rev Kennedy and Rev Brodie both gave shelter and tried to find them work that was not ‘indentured’ which, in principle, did not meet with the approval of either. As the number of Portuguese parishioners increased, Rev Brodie was said to have conducted services in both Portuguese and English. Rev Kennedy named the first church Greyfriars after his own church in Glasgow. It was this congregation in Scotland who sponsored and fund-raised to support Rev Kennedy’s mission to Trinidad and to provide the money to build that first church, and named it Greyfriars.

In the same way the parishioners of Selkirk, Rev Brodie’s home parish, supported him from the start of his mission to Trinidad in 1840. Initially this was to help to set up the Presbyterian church in Arouca. Later support was given to Greyfriars, as Rev Brodie moved there to continue the work of its first minister, after Rev Kennedy had to leave for health reasons associated with the climate. About this time, the Missionary Board in Edinburgh had wanted to send Rev Brodie to Jamaica.

The parishioners of Selkirk objected so strongly that Rev Brodie duly moved to Port of Spain and remained in Trinidad for a total of 35 years, maintaining connections with Selkirk throughout. The British settlers overseas have much to be ashamed of prior to, and including the early years of the 19th century. We should never forget their responsibility for that abhorrence. What, on the other hand, is so wrong with honouring the positive achievements of those early missionaries and pioneers who tried so hard to improve the situation of those in Trinidad after emancipation? These were indeed remarkable men deserving of honour and memorial. Their role extended way beyond that of minister providing pastoral care for a diverse and fractured community: they were administrators, they were educators, they were social reformers prepared to speak out against continuing injustice. Both Rev Kennedy and Rev Brodie were well educated, an advantage they chose to use to good effect. They set up the first lending library, open to the wider community.

Traditionally the Presbyterian church in Scotland also provided education. Schools were often run by female members of the minister’s family. This tradition was continued, Rev Brodie was supported by his wife Charlotte Lawson and together they provided schooling for children and opportunities for adults who had had no previous access to education. I have never been to Trinidad, it is an ocean away, but at this point I declare a connection. I am a direct descendant of one of those earliest missionaries, the Rev George Brodie, was my great-great-grandfather. I grew up knowing that my great-grandfather, Ballantyne Brodie, was born in Arouca, Trinidad, during a time when his father was a Presbyterian missionary on the island. The family still has a print of the first little church built at Arouca. That was the extent of my knowledge, the time there may have been brief. It has taken me eight years to get to this point, slowly piecing together information to uncover the history.

I only recently discovered that Greyfriars was still standing; within weeks I hear that it has been sold, that the building, its contents and all it represents is seriously at risk. In the UK we value our history and make every effort to preserve it. It is difficult for me to understand those who disregard social history and give scant regard to their built heritage. Greyfriars is sold and there may have been sound economic reasons for that, but its contents can still be preserved and sensitively restored. I appeal to whoever has the authority to make this happen, to actively address these issues before it is too late. At this point there may still be an opportunity to separate the contents of Greyfriars from those who, unwilling to acknowledge their importance to history, would relegate them to a life in storage. Here, already fragile paper records would disintegrate; these should be catalogued and preserved by experts. Neither should there be a time limit on any memorial. All commemorate worthy lives, lives of service to church and community, lives lost in war, all deserve to continue to be displayed, not dismissed as no longer relevant. It is perhaps too much to hope for, but not unheard of, certainly in the UK, that a restored Greyfriars be given a new identity and change of use. The markers and memorials could be reinstated; exhibits which chart the history of the building could go on display retaining the building’s heritage. This would be a way to pay homage and show respect to Greyfriars’ past, and allowing it to be a visible and integral part of its future.”

Meanwhile, over in Tobago lives Jennifer de Verteuil, another great-great-granddaughter of Rev Brodie, who has channelled her seething anger over the whole mess by writing and contacting as many stakeholders as she can find, bringing attention to her family’s past. The church, she notes, is where her navel string is buried, where her father Wilson Brodie Thomson had his farewell service in June 2001, his brother Philip Thomas Thomson in February 1997, their mother Alice May Brodie-Thomson (that WWI nurse written about in this space recently) in March 1947, her father Charles Brodie in August 1895, and his father, the Rev George Brodie, in October of 1875.

 

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As of yesterday, 584 people had signed an online petition at https://www.change.org/p/town-and-country-planning-to-prevent-the-demolition-of-greyfriars-church-port-of-spain that urges the Minister of National Diversity and Social Integration Rodger Samuel to list the church as a National Heritage site, giving it legal protection.

What happens next will tell us much about ourselves.

 

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Filed under The Ramblings of a Reformed Ecclesiastic

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