On a three-acre parcel of prime agricultural land nestled in the Heights of Guanapo, Arima stands several majestic concrete columns which once supported a sprawling pan-shaped roof. They were once part of a structure, estimated to cost $30 million, which was to be one of the largest churches in the Caribbean. However, what was intended to be an impressive edifice, a place of worship unlike any other in this country, has been reduced to unsightly ruins in just a few short months.
Twisted metal and huge chunks of broken concrete are evidence of the wanton looting that took place after the construction site was abandoned. The ruins of what was planned as the Lighthouse of the Lord Jesus Christ Church, a project spearheaded by Rev Juliana Pena, are located at Cemetery Street, Guanapo on some 15,580.31 square metres of land. The edifice was being constructed to have a floor area of 2,980.85 square metres. Work on the church came to a sudden halt just before the May 24 general election after it was alleged that State funds were being used for its construction.
Questions were raised about the involvement of Shanghai Construction Group (SCG), a Chinese firm brought in via the Urban Development Corporation of T&T (Udecott) to carry out several major State projects. The day before the election, Chinese workmen hired by SCG to build the church fled the site, taking with them important documents which could have assisted the police in their investigations. Just days before that, on May 15, the People's Partnership held a press briefing and produced documents linking then Udecott chairman, Calder Hart and then prime minister, Patrick Manning to the controversial church.
The documents revealed apparent links with Udecott.
Pena, an elusive figure who has not been seen since the controversy erupted, was reputed to be a spiritual adviser to Manning. She is referred to by many as "the prophetess." Anti-corruption investigators had sought the assistance of Interpol to locate Rev Pena when they began their probe into the construction of the multi-million dollar Guanapo church. Pena, who reportedly lives in the United States, has only been to the church site once since the start of its construction.
Investigators have so far been unsuccessful in locating her although she had addresses in Arima, where relatives now live. Pena and Hart are at the centre of a police probe of the church's construction which is reported to be at a sensitive stage. The issue, which was the focus of intense national debate just a few months ago, no longer generates controversy and news headlines.
Residents: It's distressing
However, the apparent lack of action on the issue is not sitting well with disgruntled Guanapo residents who say the site is an eyesore. They want Government to either complete the building, or allow them to transform it into a multi-purpose community centre. "It's not just about the church anymore," said spokesman for the residents, Makeda Washington. "When you think about how much millions spend here and how much people from the community are unemployed, it is insulting and distressing. "All we hearing is that the investigation going on. You don't even see a police vehicle passing anymore."
Washington said the road leading to Guanapo had been in a deplorable state for more than 30 years, but "because of the church it fix hurry, hurry." She said residents realised something major was taking place at the construction site "since day one." "Patrick Manning was coming in here all the time," she claimed. "They promised to give youths from the area work, but after they secured the compound they bring in the Chinese." Washington suggested that the looting at the site was the residents' way of venting their anger and frustration at a situation they regarded as "intolerable and unjust." "What happened here is what happened to the (previous) government. People were just fed up and they took out their frustration," she said.
A free for all
Washington urged the Government to make a decision soon about the church, since the residents are prepared to stage a massive protest over the poor infrastructure and lack of community facilities. "My children have to be stuck in the house because they don't have anywhere to play. I cannot take a walk, we don't have a community centre, we have nothing. "All we have is a landfill and a quarry. People just coming and taking what they want and the rest of the population just dumping what they don't want," Washington said.
The Heights of Guanapo is an agricultural community with a population of approximately 500. According to Washington, unemployment in the area is "disturbingly high" and the community is also faced with other problems, including drug abuse, poverty and destitution. Washington said residents share a common vision for a better life. "We want a multi-purpose community complex. In the middle we have dreams of an indoor sporting facility. We want to put a walkway on the top and a day-care centre. We have nothing and this is the only structure we could operate in.
"People still feel it is about the church but it is not that anymore. If the Government does not want to complete the structure, we will complete it ourselves," she said. Millions of dollars of iron, tools, equipment and building materials were carted away during the looting. Resident Callistus Prince, 27, recalled: "We just watching while they loading thing. Is who come out in their soft shirt and tie. The majority who take thing is big men who had their transport." He said the looters carted away tools, iron and whatever else had value.
Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, when questioned about the status of the police probe into the Guanapo church, directed all questions to National Security Minister John Sandy. However, Sandy said he had no comment to make on the issue. An official at the AG's office said the investigation was at a "very sensitive and critical stage" but was far from complete. The official added that Ramlogan will address the nation about the Guanapo issue soon. The official also insisted that the police are "very much aware" of Hart's whereabouts. Last June, Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Roger Gaspard advised the police to begin an investigation of the construction of the Lighthouse of the Lord Jesus Christ Church at the Heights of Guanapo.
Officers of the Anti-Corruption Investigations Bureau (ACIB) were assigned to conduct a full probe into alleged misconduct in public office and misuse of public funds in connection with the controversial project. Apart from Pena, Hart and former prime minister Manning, the police were expected to interview officials of Town and Country Planning Division and SCG. However, the issue is shrouded in secrecy. Minister in the Ministry of National Security Subhas Panday, when questioned, said he had no idea of the status of the investigation. An e-mail sent to Tong Ji Sheng, director and president of Overseas Business of SCG, generated no response. Alleged church designer Stephen Mendes has reportedly left Designs Collaborative Associates Ltd (DCAL), at Ellerslie Plaza Maraval. An official at the firm said Mendes had resigned but was unable to state his current place of employment.
"We really have no idea where he went. He just left," the official said. Mendes shot into the spotlight a few months ago when documents related to the church construction problem surfaced. Those documents made reference to "the PM" and showed that the Town and Country Planning Division had granted final approval for the church on April 16 this year. Mendes, in a sworn statement, confirmed the "PM" in the document referred to Manning. He further stated that Pena made an "impassioned plea" to him after he met her at Hart's office where he went for a meeting on a separate matter. Manning, in a subsequent interview, claimed "PM" meant Project Manager. He agreed to give advice on the designs for free and subsequently appealed to Hart to inform Town and Country Planning Division that he was not the owner nor contractor for the church project.