This is an article I did several years ago for a publication with which I was involved – Essential magazine, a really good publication that I wish had survived and a project of Homegrown Publications, a business endeavor I wish had soared. I mentioned the article to a friend recently as we did a drive-around observing that, for as much as we tear down (and we do seem to love tearing down), the churches are some of the best preserved historical buildings on the island. She asked me to share it and I was just going to send it to her but I haven’t done one of these Antigua and Barbuda page additions in a while, so it seemed like a good fit. So consider this your tour of Antigua, by church. Oh any architectural-speak in this article is credited, in addition to my textual/secondary research, to my friend Cedric; this is his field and he toured the churches with me as part of my research for this article helping me to make the connection between what I’d read and what I was seeing.
p.s. as with everything else on this site, this belongs to me, feel free to excerpt and link-back but NOT to lift wholesale without asking and/or crediting.
by Joanne C. Hillhouse
A church can be a magical place.
At St. Joseph’s, a child sits, zoned on the celebrant’s voice, held erect, like other blue-jumper-clad students from neighbouring Holy Family School, by the severe wooden pews. And in between the kneeling and standing, she looks up and becomes transfixed by the pale-limbed, harped and haloed, winged angelic figures in the domed ceiling above the sanctuary.
These are the ‘Angels of Fran Angelico,’ sent and paid for by Bishop Morris and fitted by Brothers Ivo and Majella.
Replaced as the Catholic Cathedral, going on 20 years, by the simultaneously circled and angular, white washed modern Holy Family Cathedral on Michael’s Mount, St. Joseph’s is significant, if only for the nostalgia evoked by those images floating in the ceiling – for epitomizing that blend of creativity and functionality typical of our places of worship. Completed in 1909, though, it is really quite young.
In a fast-changing landscape, churches are in a way unique. Carefully restored, lovingly preserved, they have survived the centuries in some form or other and with them a touch of beauty, a bit of history, which could easily form the basis for a church tour, linking tourism and our religious history.
This may be of particular interest to visitors from Europe, as so many of our historically relevant churches would have been built either during or just before or after the Georgian era, during the 1714 to 1830 reign of George I, II, III, and IV. What’s noteworthy though is that, as is perhaps true of any era, Georgian architecture does not exclusively reflect one style. Research Georgian architecture, as relates to churches, and you’ll find references to the classical revival or neo classic movement, drawing on the influences of Greece, Italy and others in the classic mold; the waning influence of the Baroque, with all the flair and ornamentation that that suggests; Neo-Palladianism, which was said to dominate the first half of the Georgian period, and which was named for Italian architect Andrea Palladio who was in turn influenced by classic principles – the grace, understated decorative elements and symbolism – of Roman architecture.
We’re, therefore, talking about a hybrid of styles, which would have spread to the colonies. Add to that the fact that churches built in the 17th century, which predates the Georgian era, had begun to shift away from the mystery of the medieval liturgy to a sort of openness of style, use of abundant and natural light and acoustics; the interior tending to be cruciform in shape.
I did my own tour of sorts, after considerable research at the museum and followed by considerable online research; though I confess I didn’t get to visit all historically relevant churches. And, as architecture is not my field, I dragged along my friend Cedric, an architectural technician, to help make sense of what I visited. Here and there, padlocks kept us out, but now and again there were willing caretakers eager to provide access.
Such was the case at St. Philips, en route to Freetown, where the pastor saw us roaming the gardens and elected to usher us in. “Tranquil,” is how Cedric described this site; an assessment with which the good reverend agreed, noting that, from time to time, residents of nearby Crossroads – a drug rehabilitation facility – came to the gardens to soak up some of that tranquility.
St. Philips was similar in basic exterior design, Cedric and I agreed, to St. Stephens, St. Paul’s, and St. Barnabas visited earlier that day. But St. Philips was easily our favourite. Dating back to 1830, allowing for subsequent renovations, of course, a standout feature of the cosy yet graceful brick structure is the big glass wall behind the sanctuary. It is dramatic to say the least, yet at once subtle, intricate, beautiful and dare we say, romantic. Constructed of leaded, beveled glass interwoven with filigreed tapestry, we found nothing to compare in the other churches visited.
Was there a harbour nearby, Cedric wondered, noticing the textured bricks, which he’d explained to me earlier were used as ballast on ships and then reused for construction in port towns. Willoughby Bay which St. Philip’s overlooks certainly qualifies.
We’d first seen this kind of brick work at Grace Bay Moravian, up a rocky path on a hill in Old Road. What I most liked about that spot was the amazing view – of the sea, mangroves and Carlisle Bay on the left and of the sea and Curtain Bluff on the right. History buffs might also be intrigued by the ruins on site; an old oven, cistern, the shells of other buildings all constructed of that same crude reddish-hued brick. The cornerstone of the quaint structure with its raised stone work and joints, corner quoins, and bell tower, was laid in 1929 by Lt. Col. St. Johnston; but as skeletons around the existing church suggests, this holy spot reaches back to an earlier time, 1797 to be exact.
Another old church tucked so far along an obscured rocky path that without a little direction we would surely have missed it, was Gilbert Memorial. Dating back to 1843, it was built on the estate of Nathaniel Gilbert, then Speaker of the House and a recent convert to Methodism. He is, in fact, described as the founding father of Methodism in the Caribbean, making this church – similar in structure to many of the Anglican churches seen though slightly more utilitarian and less ornate – historically significant, if only for this reason.
The accessory of choice among many of the structures seen – apart from the bell towers, of course – were the stained glass windows. The ones at St. Paul’s Anglican at Falmouth leap immediately to mind. St. Paul’s and St. Mary’s at Old Road have a friendly rivalry for boasting rights as to which is the oldest church on island. Built somewhere between 1670 and 1675, St. Paul’s was destroyed by earthquake in 1843, and another notable decimation came with the 1950 hurricane. The current building, therefore, is only as old as 1952. But my fondest memory of St. Paul’s – apart from being asked by the boldest of the children playing in the garden if Cedric and I were churchologists – was the varied designs in the glass windows around the sanctuary. There is Mary’s visit by Gabriel, Jesus’ baptism by John, Saul’s conversion to Paul and other touchstones of Christendom colourfully interpreted.
Up the road in Liberta, along a curving hillside is another popular historical stop, St. Barnabas. Distinctive for its green hue courtesy of the green stone quarried in the area, St. Barnabas was built somewhere between 1824 and 1842, and originally served as a school. It was upgraded to a chapel after the 1843 destruction of St. Paul’s. Restoration on St. Barnabas was completed in 1989, and perhaps more than any other building visited, the changes to the original work are subtle enough to be missed at first glance. Here again we see the defining characteristics, particularly of the Anglican churches, the bricks which once served as ballasts, the angled buttresses, the interior cruciform or T shape – the latter slightly different at St. Stephen’s where the altar is more central.
Far from characteristic, by far, is St. Peter’s Anglican at Parham, originally built in 1840, which is an imposing atypical structure, to say the least. It’s been described as Gothic, though Cedric did not strictly agree; and its [Its] heavy Italian influence has been well documented. What it is, perhaps more than anything, is reflective of the opulence of this once booming town. Imposing doesn’t begin to capture the feeling of standing in its shadow, add to that the octagonal shape and the huge windows and you have something that certainly must have felt overpowering in its day.
This reference, of course, calls to mind another dominant structure – St. John’s Anglican – already a regular tourist stop.
The current structure, the third to be built on this Newgate Street site was consecrated in 1848. It has multiple distinctive features; such as the double superstructure – stone on the outside, pitch-pine on the inside, not one but two towers, and the Southgate figures of St. John the Divine and St. John the Baptist, taken from a Martinique bound vessel during the Seven Years’ War. Dubbed ‘Big Church,’ colloquially, it was considered by some, likely not least among these the many once enslaved Africans populating the island, as a symbol of British omnipresence visible as it is from virtually any point in the city.
Another church that is hard to miss, though not nearly as colossal, is ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Help,’ dedicated in 1932. Once almost hot pink, the peach-walled, red roofed structure with the Madonna and child mosaic on the bell frey over the door, at its Tyrells residence, is always camera-ready.
There are, of course, numerous other churches of interest for various reasons be they architectural – such as perhaps Holy Family and Spring Gardens or historical – such as St. Mary’s or Our Lady of the Valley. But here our tour ends. Actually, it ended at Fitches Creek, St. Georges Anglican to be exact, which has the distinction of being a favourite for weddings. Must have something to do with its aged serenity, size and ideal off road yet still easily accessible location. At St. Georges, too, there is a wealth of history, reaching back to 1689 when it became a chapel-of-ease to St. Peter’s, coming forward to 1725 when it was elevated to parish status. Restored between 1965 and 1987, of stone and brick, romantic might be a worthy term to define this timeless witness to new love.