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PART 1 The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
In early 2013, His Grace Archbishop Joseph Harris took the momentous decision to close the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in order that longstanding restoration works might be accelerated. In a report carried in the Trinidad Guardian shortly thereafter, Justin Charles, project manager for Construction Restoration and Maintenance Services Limited, pointed out that a part of the ceiling had been compromised due to the depredations of termites, while Chad Field from Prime Project Managers indicated: “It was the most critical part, since the termite infestation threatened the main support and it could have collapsed.”
This is indeed regretful irony since it was such a situation that led to the erection of this sacred edifice in the first place. In 1784, the capital of Spanish Trinidad officially was transferred from San Jose de Oruna (St Joseph) to Puerta de los Hispanoles (Port-of-Spain). In those days, a small wooden chapel served the town and was located east of the present Cathedral on the plot of land now occupied by Columbus Square. The grounds also contained a small cemetery, evidence of which has been found from time to time when crews digging in the area have uncovered human remains. This building stood approximately 80 feet long by 40 feet wide with a steeply pitched roof. It was not unlike many of the plain wooden churches once so common throughout the countryside in Trinidad. The furnishings were simple enough with wooden benches as pews, a plain altar and a marble image of the Virgin Mary and child.
Victim of rot and termites
Like all buildings in the tropics, the wooden chapel was soon the victim of rot and termites and became unstable. The island became a British possession in 1797 but the Catholic Church remained the primary church, although the Church of England was soon to become the church of the colonial authorities. Military governors like Picton and Hislop had little time for ecclesiastical affairs and the old chapel languished in disrepair. It was not until the coming of Sir Ralph Woodford that something was done. Plans for a stone church were drafted by his secretary, Phillip Reingale. The foundation stone was laid by Woodford himself on March 25, 1816. Walls of limestone quarried in Laventille were accented with doors and windows cased in English freestone and the corners of Scottish firebricks, imported as ballast in the holds of sugar ships. The base of the walls was very thick indeed, but the upper parts woefully thin.
Up to 1824, only the walls had been completed and the building stopped for three years since the price of sugar had fallen and money was scarce among the Roman Catholic elite who had funded 40 per cent of the construction. Moreover, money had to be diverted to the completion of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, which, of course, was the main edifice of the Church of England in Trinidad. Services were held in the old wooden chapel which continued in its dilapidated state. In 1825, the Rev Abbe Le Goffe, Vicar General of Trinidad, pressed for funds to complete the church, but was turned down. In that same year, the following notice was paid to the Cathedral in writing:
“In another part of the town is an unfinished church for the Romanists; there is no roof as yet, but what is perfected is of even a still more costly and exquisite character than our own. The lateral walls certainly appear too thin to be able to support any weight laid upon them, but Abbe Legoffe has no fears on that head, and the facetious Abbe is a competent judge. At present the Romish service is enacted in a very rude chapel of wood, from which they are obliged during Lent to extend awnings into the street to afford a temporary receptacle for the worshippers who crowd in from the country.”
Upon direction from Woodford, two fine brick towers began to rise from the ground—but this soon stopped the towers having to be completed in local wood because of a shortage of funds. When the economy improved in 1827, work began on the roof. In 1831 a storm tore through the city. Later that year, during the 4 am Christmas morning mass in the old wooden church, a beam cracked with the report of a gunshot . . . fearing that the roof was falling, the congregation fled in a rushed panic, stripping a modest and well known lady to the nude in the process!
Next week we will look at the struggles and foibles surrounding the construction of the Cathedral.