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The life of a leper

Chacachacare —Part IV
Published: 
Sunday, February 28, 2016
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In 1927, Archbishop John Pius Dowling arrived at the newly-commissioned leprosarium on Chacachacare to bless and consecrate the chapel and convent of the Dominican Sisters. It was not altogether a joyous occasion since one of their Order, Mother Marie, was now a leper herself having contracted the dread disease in service to the patients. 

There was also an early trauma to cope with since on July 17, 1928, a storm struck the island and the roof of the convent was blown away, forcing the sisters to seek shelter among the patients. Moreover, the launch which transported them from Marine Bay to the lepers’ village was driven aground and destroyed.

The sisters were assisted in their medical duties by paid government nurses who, for twice the normal salary, lived on the island in a “two weeks on-two weeks off” shift system. Understandably, the zeal of the paid nurses for the care of the lepers was not equal to that of the nuns. 

Life for the lepers was not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Males were housed at Cocos Bay and females at Sander’s Bay, which were connected by a bridle path. Because water was scarce and rationed, those who were able presented themselves at the concrete cisterns every morning with a container to obtain a scanty supply from the custodian. They were not allowed to bathe in the sea either and those caught wading out more than waist-high were clapped in a small jail at La Tinta Bay.

Food was also poor and in short supply but the patients were not allowed to fish to supplement their rations. There was, however, a small vegetable garden where some corn, tomatoes and ground provisions were grown for use in the mess hall. In one of the uninhabited bays, pigs, fowls and goats were reared to provide meat and eggs. 

Those not rendered immobile by their affliction worked at small tasks in the patients’ village at Sander’s Bay for 25 cents a day. Women were taught needlework and crochet and assisted in the mending of linens. Needless to say, there was no such thing as visitation rights since relatives were not allowed on the island nor could the patients leave for extenuating circumstances such as bereavement. A strict watch was kept on the main jetty to ensure that no unauthorised contact from the mainland took place.

In the early 1930s, Dr Urich was the medical superintendent. Unlike the kindly Dr Ferdinand De Verteuil, who for years was in charge of the leprosarium at Cocorite and oversaw the move to Chacachacare, Dr Urich was perceived by the patients as a hard man. This perception was only heightened in 1934 when he decided to cut the stipend paid to working patients from 25 cents to 12 cents.

The little money the patients earned allowed them to purchase small comforts of life whenever the government steamer visited the island on its mail run. In response to this measure, the patients went on strike and raised a howl of protest which ended in the colonial secretary dispatching a commission of enquiry to the island and restoration of the old wage. While there, the commissioners observed the almost complete lack of recreational facilities for the inmates and ordered the issuing of cricketing gear and other equipment as well as the construction of a sports ground. 

Sander’s Bay, however, contained one grim reminder to all patients about their eventual fate. Fronting the sea on the eastern side was a small box-like structure that served as a morgue. On the hillside behind, the slope was cleared of trees and dotted with plain white wooden crosses. The sisters were not spared either. In 1935, Sister Ena was diagnosed with leprosy and went to Sander’s Bay where she lived in a cottage shared with Mother Rose who was to die in 1937. 

Her remains were interred at the patients’ cemetery which is now lost in the scrub forest which has covered the site. In later years, a plaque was raised to her memory in the graveyard of the sisters.  Whenever a sister passed away, the steamer servicing the island would make a circuit and blow its horn three times while a flag flew at half-mast on deck. 

Leprosy was not the only danger. The rigorous workload combined with the general hardship of life on Chacachacare took its toll on the sisters, many of whom were now old women, having given a lifetime of dedicated service that began at Cocorite.

•Next week, we conclude our look at the Chacachacare Leper Colony.

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