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The story of a priest and his parish in the 19th century: Building with rocks on a foundation of faith

Published: 
Saturday, January 7, 2017
St Peter's Roman Catholic Church in 1930.

In the 1820s Carenage was a community of free coloured fishermen and small farmers which began to grow after Emancipation in 1834 with the settling of many ex-slaves in the district. The Rev Fr Patrick Smith—himself later to ascend to prominence as the first Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Port-of-Spain—was the parish priest of Carenage from around 1827 and in 1832, and managed to construct a large, gothic stone church which has since been replaced by a mundane concrete structure.

It was dedicated to St Peter, and on the consecration day, June 30, 1832, the Governor, Sir George Fitzgerald Hill and Lady Hill made the trip via the good ship Spartan to Carenage amidst a flotilla of smaller craft for the blessing of St Peter. Even with all this prestige, the settlement remained poor economically (though rich in community spirit) as described in 1857 thus:

“The ward of Carenage extends to the sea on the south. Besides the small river of Cuesa, which traverses the valley from one end to the other, another mountain torrent descends the hills, not far from the mouth of the Diego Martin. There are coco palm plantations along the beach, and a village has been formed in the neighbourhood of the catholic church, which is a neat stone-building, and on which the inhabitants of that impoverished district have spent in labour above 3,000 dollars. On the northcoast, and corresponding to the Carenage valley, is the bay of Maqueripe. The port of Carenage belongs to this ward: the population is mainly composed of fishermen. The district is unhealthy, as also the ward of Chaguaramas. This latter consists of the extremity of the north-west peninsula and the islands of Monos and Gasparillo, with Long and Begorrat’s islands.

 

This ward is entirely hilly, scantily inhabited, and more scantily cultivated; vegetables and manioc, or bitter cassava, are the principal productions, to which may be added some coffee. The port of Carenage is partly situated in this ward. Petit-Bourg, a miserable assemblage of huts, stands at the lower extremity, and is, from its position, one of the most unhealthy spots in Trinidad. Carenage is separated from Chaguaramas by a large promontory, connected with the mainland by a mere neck 2,000 feet wide, and so low that it is used as a portage.”

Even though it was dedicated to the patron saint of fishermen, the parish church was still inland, and the pious fisherfolk of Carenage longed for a chapel near the sea. In 1870, the energetic Abbe Poujade (1825-87), a Frenchman, was transferred from Chaguanas and began to think about the need for a church near the sea. He was a doctor, builder, architect, shipwright and sculptor. While a man of practical skill, the poor parish could ill afford to fund another church, so the abbe sought other solutions to the need for building materials. His outstations at Teteron and Scotland Bays could only be reached by boat in those days, and on one of these trips, he noticed that at the bay known as L’Anse Paoua, there was an abundance of squarish, castellated stone which would make excellent building blocks with a little work.

From then onwards, at the admonishment of the good father, Carenage fishermen would every day bring back from L’Anse Paoua, a few of the stones which were deposited on a rocky spit of land jutting out to sea, just south of the village. Once the material for the walls had been gathered, work began on the church in earnest. Since the menfolk were out all day trying to earn a living from the sea, the task fell to the women of Carenage to build the church. Using money from his own meagre priest’s salary, the good cleric bought some land in upper Carenage valley from which wood was cut for the rafters of the chapel. Under the instruction and guidance of Abbe Poujade, the women and children took up mallet and chisel to shape the stone for the walls, mortared them into place and, with adze and plane, shaped the rafters. Finally, in 1876 the chapel of Notre Dame de la Mer was completed and consecrated. The statue of St Peter was removed from the yard of the stone church in the village and erected behind the new chapel, facing the sea. Abbe Poujade spent the rest of his life maintaining his little chapel by the sea. First Communion, baptisms and, of course, the Feast Day of St Peter were regular observances. The good priest died on July 31, 1887. His parishioners erected a tablet to his memory in the little sanctuary of the chapel which still is to be seen and reads:

“S. Memoriae Ven. Sacerdos M. Antonii Poujade qui Gallia natus est et muniis boni pastoris laudibilter in hac parochia functus est per 18 annos. In sua patria reverses pie obit die 31 Julii 1887 annos natus 63 . R.IP.”

After the death of the worthy Abbe Poujade, the chapel continued to be a part of the parish, although it was sadly neglected, with fishermen hanging nets on the walls to dry and even a bathhouse being erected six feet from the door by an unscrupulous entrepreneur. In1887 it was described as follows:

“The shore is here indented by miniature bays, rocky headlands, and at high tide the passage round these is of some difficulty, the water being often up to the horse’s girths, while its muddiness obscures the masses of rock which obstruct the way. About two miles of this brings you to St Pierre, where the steamboat jetty has been recently repaired by anchoring the old steam-dredger at its extremity! At the shore end of the pier is a little Catholic chapel, and more inland is a good-sized Roman Catholic Church, with a large statue of the patron saint of the village outside. The late Abbe of the church, Bev Father Poujade, was well known as being a clever amateur organ-builder.”

In 1943 Fr S J Murphy replaced at a cost of $850, the wooden roof and floorboards which had been installed by Abbe Poujade over six decades earlier, but had rotted with the sea blast. Fr Murphy also refinished the walls in plaster, which sadly hid the wonderfully ingenious work of the women of Carenage who cut and fit the stones which were brought from L’Anse Paoua by their menfolk. Although the chapel is now closed most of the time, it is still the place from which the great tradition of St Peter’s Day in Carenage is observed every year. The legacy of Abbe Poujade is commemorated in the street in the village which bears his name today.