Trinidad's First Peoples were also nation's first Catholics

IMAGE: CNS photo/Laura Ann Phillips

By Laura Ann Phillips

Trinidad (CNS) — Past small family-owned businesses and homes tightly packed
into well-worn streets, a procession of just over 300 St. Rose of Lima devotees
snaked through the semi-rural borough of Arima, 45 miles southeast of the

its middle, a five-foot statue of the saint rode, elevated on a wooden, rose-framed
litter at the back of a flatbed truck. For centuries, St. Rose has been a
bridge between the Catholic Church and Trinidad’s First Peoples — an
assortment of Amerindian tribes that inhabited the island for at least 6,000
years before Christopher Columbus stumbled upon them in 1498.

wizened woman, a blend of East Indian and one of the nearly disappeared
Amerindian tribes, walked in front of the saint-bearing truck as closely as the
safety marshals allowed, holding aloft a matte-cream, plastic vase crammed with
oversized pale pink artificial blooms.

names, neatly handwritten in fine black marker, covered the vase’s surface: people
alive and dead for whom she needed the saint’s favors. When the statue was
returned to its home in the St. Rose Parish Church, that vase was the first
to be ensconced at the saint’s feet.

Rosa is like mother to them,” explained First Peoples Chief Ricardo
Bharath Hernandez. “The faith and devotion people have placed in this
saint has worked miracles for them.”

some find objectionable, since Catholicism was brought by the Spanish, who decimated
most of the island’s indigenous tribes.

Spanish didn’t settle in Trinidad until 1592. About 40,000 indigenous people of
varying tribes lived on the island, and there was light trading and a tenuous
peace for some time. But, when Spain’s encomienda system was introduced around
1644, Amerindian labor was seized.

Nepuyo tribe of Arima mounted the strongest resistance, their Chief Hyarima leading
a force effective enough to slow Spanish occupation of the island’s north for

Amerindians, though, were converted early by the Capuchins who staffed missions
erected throughout the island, each dedicated to a particular saint; Arima’s was
dedicated to St. Rose. The newly baptized doffed their traditional names for
that of their estate owner or the baptizing priest. This is why so many local
Amerindian descendants carry Spanish names, said Hernandez. Records recovered
from the missions have helped some people trace their tribal roots.

it is nearly impossible to find pure-blooded descendants of any of the original
tribes today; some think none exist. What was left of them dissolved, over the
centuries, into Trinidad’s myriad ethnicities.

find it difficult to wholeheartedly embrace the Catholic Church and its
practices. Others find power in both.

Lord and my savior is Jesus Christ, his son, and that will never change,” said Hilary Bernard, a dentist and First Peoples descendant.

First Peoples’ prayer, she noted, “The name Tamushi is given to almighty
God. It’s Taino, which is one of the Arawak languages, and it means, ‘creator
of the universe’, ‘almighty God.'”

is also a member of the Catholic charismatic prayer group that’s heavily involved
in youth ministry and social outreach.

no separation for me, really. There’s nothing to reconcile.”

First Peoples’ “commitment to prayer and allowing prayer to transform and
inform their lives is a very important thing,” said Msgr. Christian Pereira,
a former St. Rose parish priest for several years.

have a very deep relationship to the earth and the universe, which is their
essential relationship of the Divine Spirit of the Holy One.”

religions have allowed themselves to “become divorced from the universe,”
Msgr. Pereira said. “Pope Francis has tried to pull us back in “Laudato
Si’,” to remind us that the (Creator is present in all elements of the)
earth, and the universe is the seat of the Creator.”

Amerindian devotion to St. Rose can be traced to a 17th-century legend which
some call a miracle, others the oppressor’s cunning.

hunters were in the hills and found a girl alone there. She was dumb, so they
took her back to the village. That night, she disappeared, but she was found
again in the forest the next day. They brought her back to the settlement, but
she disappeared that night, too. The next day, when she was found, the people
took her to the mission priest. He told them the mysterious girl was the
manifested spirit of St. Rose and, after that night, would not return. Sure
enough, the girl was never seen again.

daughter of Chief Hyarima later became Catholic, followed by many of their
peoples. The First Peoples’ Carib queen, the community’s titular head
throughout the years, is said to be her descendant.

there are oral traditions, and there is the practical thing,” stated Chief
Hernandez, “because there are similar stories in other indigenous
communities of the region where the Catholics took possession.”

he defends his community when their devotion to the saint and Catholicism are
criticized by internal and external groups.

tell them we must remember that, for over 200 years, this has become part of
the people’s tradition and culture,” said Hernandez. “The Santa Rosa
festival allowed them a space to practice their indigenous culture.”

For more than 230 years of the feast’s celebration, following the Mass and
procession, all assembled at the park in front of the church, where the First
Peoples share their traditional dances, rituals, food, games and craft. Today,
it is a modest food and craft operation run jointly by the parish and First
Peoples with a more modern lean.

their community’s festival preparations are robust. On Aug. 1, a conch shell —
the shell of a large ocean mollusk — is blown, a religious ceremony performed
in the hills, and cannons fired. During the weeks following, the women prepare
decorative roses, buntings and flags, with separate duties for the men. The
community also participates in the parish novena.

First Peoples existed long before Jesus Christ was born,” said Msgr. Pereira.
“They hold the presence of the Great Spirit in nature all around them in
reverence and, to this day, recognize God’s presence in wider creation, as well
as the particular presence of God in the person of Jesus Christ in our Catholic

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