The Jesuits in Guyana
The Interior

There are four natural regions of Guyana: the Coastal Plain, the Rain Forest, the forested Highlands and the Savannahs. The “Interior” of Guyana is everything but the narrow coastal plain.

The history of the Catholic mission to the Amerindian of Guyana actually begins in Venezuela. Throughout the 18th century Spanish Franciscans ministered to the indigenous people of territories around the Orinoco. Their mission however came to an abrupt and tragic end when on 3 May 1817 Simon Bolivar’s forces put to death 26 priests and two lay brothers. The Amerindians fled from the destroyed mission, some seeking refuge in the British held territory around the Moruca River. Years later, when these Arawaks heard that a Catholic priest had arrived in Georgetown they sent word to him asking for someone to come to minister to them. On 24 June 1830, John Hynes, OP arrived in Moruca to spend three days during which he baptized 75 children and married two couples.

From this beginning a mission was developed to other Amerindian communities in the North West. A principal mission was established at Moruca which was dedicated to St Rose of Lima. This mission was quickly to become known by its Spanish name, Santa Rosa. Later a second mission centre was opened up at Morawhanna, closer to the Venezuelan boarder thus expanding the range of communites served by the priests of the North West District.

With the Amerindians of the coastal river rain areas being cared for, the Vicar Apostolic of British Guiana, Bishop Galton, wanted to reach out to the other Amerindians of the country. With this in mind, in 1909, Bishop Galton SJ, accompanied by Fr Cuthbert Cary-Elwes SJ, undertook a hazardous journey from Georgetown to the little-explored region of the mountains and savannahs on the border with Brazil. They selected a site for a mission from where Father Cary-Elwes would be able to reach out to the other villages in the south and south-west. The spot that was chosen for this was Zariwa on the right bank of the Takatu River just above the Moku-Moku River. The base was established and dedicated to the founder of the Jesuits and became know a St Ignatius Mission, a title it still retains today.

Fr Cary Elwes made remarkable progress in his evangelisation of the area. He moved from village-to-village teaching prayers and hymns learning the languages and preaching the Good News to the people. The Amerindians were very receptive to the word that they heard and large numbers were baptised and became devout Catholics. The endless round of missionary journeys took its toll on Fr Cary Elwes and in May 1923 he suffered a serious breakdown in health that resulted in his being taken back to Georgetown. Much to his regret he never returned to the Rupununi.

Fr Henry Mather was sent to replace him in November 1923 but even on the journey to the mission became sick and had to return. However by December 1924 with the arrival of Fr Frank Mayo the mission resumed. Mather eventually returned and was joined by Fr William Keary.

On 22 January 1931 Fr William Banham left Georgetown on a preliminary expedition to choose a site for a central house among the Patamona people of the Pakaraimas. Mather journeyed up through the interior from St Ignatius to meet him. However the death of Bishop Galton meant that these plans had to be put on hold and the Mission centre among the Patamonas had to wait until 1957 when Fr Gerald Wilson-Browne was able to build a church and presbytery at Kurukabaru.

A major contribution to the life of the Amerindians of the Rupununi and Pakaraimas was the establishment and running of a network of primary schools. Teachers for these were largely recruited from the Arawak Amerindian community at Santa Rosa. Fr Bernard MacKenna operating out of Sand Creek was the priest largely responsible for this work among the Wapishana of the Rupununi., while John Quigley worked with the Macushi of the central Rupununi and Wilson-Browne with the Patamona in the Pakaraimas. Medical care was also provided through a hospital built at Aishalton where a Jesuit priest Fr Loretz worked as a doctor.

The Jesuits have now been operating in the forested highlands and savannahs for a hundred years. It is sparsely populated corner of the world where about 100 Amerindian villages are scattered across the section of the interior which stretches from near-inaccessible Mount Roraima on the Venezuela border and spectacular Kaieteur Falls in the north to the sandy savannah lands which graze the Equator in the south. The Amerindian communities (primarily the Patamona people in the Pakaraima mountains, the Macushi people in the north & middle Rupununi, the Wapishana in the south Rupununi and Wai-Wai people in the deep south) are still today subsistence farmers who have established a simple livelihood cultivating the cassava root and (when seasons allow) hunting and fishing.

Presently the Jesuits working in the interior operate out of three centres. Aishalton in the deep south Rupununi: St Ignatius in Central Rupununi; and Kurukabaru in the Pakaraimas. Plans are in place to introduce a fourth centre at Karasabai in the foothills of the Pakaraimas.

In the South Rupununi Fr Peter Britt-Compton, who will celebrate his 90th birthday in 2009, continues to live among the Wapishana people to whom he has ministered with great love and dedication for many years. The communities he used to visit are now cared for by the youngest priest in the Guyana Region, Fr Amar Bage. The pastoral work of the Church in the deep South has been enriched in recent years by a community of Tildonk Ursuline sisters from the Ranchi region of India. These sisters were able with the help of Fr Oliver Rafferty and Fr Joseph Puli to reopen the convent in Aishalton, built many years previously by Fr Derrick Maitland for the Corpus Christi Carmelites. Prior to the arrival of the sisters, two Scarboro Lay Mission Volunteers, Miriam White and Kate ??? had begun to develop excellent work among the women and girls of the community including a sewing centre and catechism classes.

In Central Rupununi the mission station of St Ignatius continues to flourish. Here Fr Joaquim De Mello and Fr Kuruvila are developing a ministry to the Macushi communites and to the rapidly expanding settlement of Lethem. Fr Kuruvilla has special responsibility for investigating ways in which the Church can make a renewed contribute to the education of the region and has been involved in an extensive programme of visits. Jesuit Scholastics and lay missionary volunteers from Jesuit Missions have been involved in teaching work at St Ignatius Secondary School and it is hoped that the Church will be able find teachers to work in Aishalton as well in the near future. Fr Joaquim has done great work in reviving some of the projects begun by Fr Lajos Kiss. The wood work shop that had been standing idle has become a thriving centre for furniture making and the bee hives built by Lajos Kiss continue to produce large quantities of top quality honey

The recent completion of a bridge across the Takatu linking Guyana and Brazil combined with the ever improving road link to Georgetown look set to change the once isolated outpost of Lethem into a thriving boarder town with all the opportunities and challenges this will present. Just the other side of the river in the Brazilan town of Bom Fin the Jesuits of the Amazonian Region are taking on responsibility for the parish church and hope to work in collaboration with the Jesuits of the Guyana region in the service of the people at this frontier.

In the Pakaraimas, on the feast of St Joseph 19th March 2007, Bishop Francis Allyne blessed and opened a new Church building that had taken the community over three years to construct. It replaced the first church built by Fr Wilson-Browne. The large joyful crowds that took part in this opening were a testimony to the strength of the living Church which is made up of the Patamona people. The Parish Lay Leaders are the backbone of this Church in a region where the only way of getting between villages is on foot. These leaders are supported and encouraged in their faith by the dedicate service of Fr Paulose Valakada who brings to his work many years of service developing mission stations in isolated regions of India.

In an ecumenical venture with the Wesleyan Church in Paramakatoi Catholic lay leaders have begun a project to revise an out of date and little used Patamona translation of the New Testament. Nurse Doris Wall an American Wesleyan with 40 years experience in Guyana is coordinating this venture which aims to proved a readable New Testament that will enrich the faith and culture of all the people of the Pakaraimas.

Throughout the regions of the Rupununi and Pakaraimas people face similar challenges. Here, Amerindians who a have provided for the needs of their families for thousands of years through their careful use of the resources of a fragile environment are entering into contact with the outside world. This contact brings many advantages for a healthier and more comfortable life. Yet it also brings with it many social problems. In many cases the representatives of the outside world are gold and diamond prospectors or logging companies whose interest is more in extracting the wealth from the area than in developing the life of the people. Drugs, and prostitution are added to the traditional social problem of drunkenness and when rum replaces traditional drinks violence often follows close behind.

The challenge of the Church is to work with communities so that in the Gospel they can find light to shine on the problems they face and strength to confront these challenges with positive solutions. This is a slow and delicate work that calls for dedication and commitment. Often such work can be undermined by passing preachers from outside who offer an escapist message of other worldly salvation that can distract from the earthly struggle. If their theology does not convince often their gifts of clothing, farm tools, bicycles or even money, do, leading to divisions and bad feelings in a once united community.

2009 will mark the centenary of the presence of the Catholic Church among the people of the Rupununi and Pakaraimas. This has been 100 years of much hard work but also of many blessings and joys.