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Friars in Jamaica
Text and photos by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
In September 2000, Franciscan friars from Cincinnati began serving in parishes and "out missions" on the western tip of Jamaica. Here's how they are faring four years later.

Q U I C K S C A N

Lucea: Small in Numbers But Large in Spirit
Negril: Where Tourism and Local Needs Meet
Savanna-La-Mar: The Largest Town and Parish Served by the Friars
The Future of the Friars in Jamaica
Thumbnail History

Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

Come fly with me on the wings of your imagination into Montego Bay, Jamaica. From there, we will visit Catholic churches in the three towns of Lucea, Negril and Savanna-la-Mar and their outlying mission chapels. We will meet seven friars and some of their co-workers.

My actual flight arrived in Montego Bay on March 25, 2004. Besides being a popular resort area and a bustling port city with a population of more than 82,000, Montego Bay is also the seat of a Roman Catholic diocese. Bishop Charles Dufour, a native Jamaican, is the head of this diocese, where the Cincinnati friars are serving.

Two friars from Lucea picked me up at the airport and drove me about 40 miles to their church and friary of Sts. Philip and James, a mile or two west of Lucea’s town center. The town is commonly referred to as “Lucy” in Jamaica. The two friars serving at “Lucy” are the church’s pastor, Father John Joseph Gonchar, O.F.M., 73, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Brother Patras Sardar, O.F.M., 34, a native of Pakistan. (In recent years, Cincinnati friars and Pakistani friars have collaborated on several projects. Jamaica is one of them.)

The church and friary stand less than 100 yards from the sparkling blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. On many a night, the friars can hear the waves crashing against the rocky coastline.

Lucea is an old port town with a population of some 6,000. At first glance the casual visitor might conclude that the Catholic Church is not particularly vibrant here. The congregation for Sunday Mass typically numbers only 30 to 40 people. Although Jamaica is over 80 percent Christian, Catholics make up only about five percent of the island’s total population. The number probably goes down another percentage point or two in Lucea and in other towns on this end of the island. Until recently, many of these towns depended on various missionary priests (often Jesuits) in Montego Bay, who would drive out on weekends to take care of the Masses and other pastoral needs.

Challenges and satisfactions at Lucea. Before coming to Jamaica in 2001, Father John Joseph Gonchar spent most of his life as a priest in typical U.S. parishes ranging from New Jersey to Indiana. He also served as a retreat master and director of Franciscan novices.

Although the core lay leaders in Lucea, including Deacon Julian Dadág and his wife, Emmy, are well trained in Catholic doctrine and highly motivated, other Catholics may not have had a great deal of faith formation after being baptized. This can be frustrating, says Father John Joseph. “There is often no sense of the Sunday obligation here, for example, or of the importance of Confession.”

On the positive side, he finds “great satisfaction” in the warmth of the Jamaican people. “It’s the people who do it for me,” he says. “They show friendliness, generosity, respect and a great spirit of hospitality!” Several of the parishioners of Sts. Philip and James expressed strong words of appreciation for Father John Joseph and of the time and attention he gives to the young people, the future of the parish. Having participated in at least three Masses celebrated by him, I can also attest to his effectiveness as a proclaimer of God’s word.

Helping where needed. Brother Patras Sardar is an important part of the Franciscan presence at Sts. Philip and James. He arrived in Jamaica in February 2003. Brother Pat is often a lector at Mass and part of the youth ministry team. Ever ready to assist the parish as needed, Brother Pat is much appreciated by young and old alike.

Next door to Sts. Philip and James Church stands a public infirmary housing a good number of elderly poor, as well as persons who are sick or suffering disabilities or mental illness. Brother Pat visits these men and women frequently, giving them encouragement and good cheer—and always ready to share prayer with them, no matter what their religion.

Very earnest and engaging, Brother Patras told St. Anthony Messenger that he likes to enter into conversations about religion with taxi drivers, athletes and people of all walks of life and ages. He readily answers questions about Catholic beliefs and often invites people to come to Catholic services at Sts. Philip and James.

Other key players. Living near the parish are Sisters Rose Chang, O.S.M., and Karen Brown, O.S.M., Servite Sisters. Both have been serving at the church and in the neighborhood for over 15 years.

Sister Rose is a native Jamaican whose father is ethnic Chinese and mother Jamaican. After being educated by the Servite Sisters in Jamaica, she entered their community in England. She received her college education there, returning to Jamaica in 1967. After teaching in a Kingston ghetto and other places, Sister Rose arrived at Sts. Philip and James in 1988.

Sister Karen, a native of Detroit, Michigan, has spent 21 years in Jamaica as a Servite missionary, residing at Lucea since 1986.

The two sisters have served as catechists for the children and helped with the RCIA. Also, they have organized an afterschool homework program, especially for students needing individual attention for improving reading and writing skills.

In addition, the sisters have been involved in setting up mediation centers, whereby members of the parish become mediators in settling conflicts outside of the court system. For relatives quarreling about land or spouses in serious conflicts with each other, trained mediators can help bring about reconciliation, avoiding expensive court costs.

Sister Karen has done much to help people suffering from AIDS and to involve parish members in their care. In some other Churches and sectors of society in Jamaica, there is lot of avoidance and denial regarding AIDS. But at least 11 persons at Sts. Philip and James are personally involved in caring for people suffering and dying with AIDS.

Some Churches, for example, refuse to hold funerals for people who have died from AIDS. This is not true of the Catholic Church in Lucea, which has conducted funeral services not only for two parishioners who died from AIDS, but for 15 non-Catholics as well, according to Sister Karen.

Both sisters appreciate the Franciscan spirit conveyed by Father John Joseph and Brother Patras. The two friars, they observe, display a “sense of brotherhood and family; they go out to be with the people” in a way that does not suggest a “big chasm between clergy and laity.”

To this, Father John Joseph adds, “Presence is a very powerful thing in Jamaica. Just being with the people and available for them speaks to them about Franciscan willingness to serve and to accept people where they are.”

In summing up the spiritual life at Sts. Philip and James, Sister Karen observes, “If you are looking for numbers, you won’t see it. If you are looking for depth of faith, it’s here!”

Lucea’s ‘out missions.’ For some 30 years, Catholics have been gathering for Mass at the home of Edward and Patricia Moseley in a little village called Kendal, about 20 miles outside Lucea. This little “mission church,” known as St. John the Evangelist, once numbered as many as 30 to 40 Catholics. In recent years, however, the number has dwindled to seven or eight. Each weekend, Father John Joseph celebrates Mass there or Deacon Julian Dadág holds a Communion service.

Every other Sunday Father John Joseph also celebrates the Eucharist with some 20 to 30 Catholics at St. Gabriel’s Church, in Cave Valley, with the deacon covering on the other Sundays. At a Mass on March 28, I counted approximately 27 people in attendance. Thanks to committed Catholic lay leaders, both St. John the Evangelist and St. Gabriel have done a lot to keep the faith alive in this part of Jamaica.

Negril is about 30 miles southwest of Lucea, on the western tip of the island. Mary Gate of Heaven is the town’s quaint little Catholic church. The first friar missioners from Cincinnati arrived at Negril in September of 2000, just four months before Bishop Charles Dufour dedicated the newly expanded church.

The simple, yet tastefully designed church, with friary and trees behind, stands right across from a seven-mile stretch of hotels, restaurants and clubs that Jamaican tourbooks call “the hippest, most casual resort” and “the island’s longest beach.”

The Franciscans in Negril serve both the local Jamaican Catholics and the Catholic tourists who have been coming here on holiday in growing numbers since the 1970s. Before that Negril was mostly a simple fishing village.

According to the local Catholics as well as the friars serving here, the Jamaicans are happy to share their faith and hospitality with Catholic tourists from North America and Europe. And the money that the tourists add to the collection baskets helps many Jamaicans, who benefit from the parish’s outreach services.

This is not to say that all Jamaican Catholics are poor. A number of them hold positions of influence in the tourist industry, while many others find steady jobs as taxi drivers, hotel and restaurant workers or employees in other tourism-related businesses.

Musician, handyman, friend of the poor. Of the three friars serving at Mary Gate of Heaven, Brother Mark Gehret, O.F.M., has served the longest. Before coming to Negril in 2000, the 49-year-old native of Fort Loramie, Ohio, served for three years at St. Mary of the Angels, a Franciscan parish in New Orleans, and for five years at Mother of Good Counsel in Hazard, Kentucky. In both parishes, he was a music minister and a key part of the maintenance and repair operations.

Brother Mark brings these same skills to Jamaica, along with a strong concern for the needs of the poor. There are significant pockets of poverty in Negril that many tourists never see. One morning, Brother Mark took two volunteers and me on a visit to a number of elderly shut-ins and other people in an economically depressed area of the town. Once a month, Brother Mark and volunteers take groceries and other supplies to these people.

Gifted with guitar-playing skills and a good voice, Mark also serves as music minister at Mary Gate of Heaven and at St. Luke’s mission church in Little London. He has helped to incorporate a Caribbean tempo and style into the music. When circumstances allow, he encourages clapping and swaying to go with the singing, as well as the use of local instruments like the tambourine and maraca (gourd rattle). Many local people and tourists find this appealing.

Pastoring at Negril and Revival. Father Felix D’Souza, O.F.M., like Brother Patras, came from Pakistan to Jamaica in 2003. After serving briefly in Lucea, the 42-year-old friar came to Negril to serve as the pastor at Mary Gate of Heaven. A little later, he also began ministering at St. Mary’s Church in Revival, a mission church about 15 miles from Negril.

Tourists make up a good percentage of the congregation at Negril’s Mary Gate of Heaven, especially during the high tourist season, says Father Felix. At a typical Sunday Mass in the high season, as many as 120 tourists might attend with 30 to 40 Jamaicans. During the off-season, the number of tourists drops to 20 or 25.

One afternoon, Father Felix drove me through hills and valleys to the mission church of St. Mary in Revival. Nearly 100 percent of the people in this rural community are Catholic, and each Sunday over 100 come for Mass.

‘We all belong to one Church.’ Brother Vincent Delorenzo, O.F.M., 53, arrived in Jamaica in August 2003 and quickly added his talents to the Franciscan effort in Negril. Brother Vince, local minister of the friary, helps out in parish administration, doing the bookkeeping for the parish, among many other things. He helps Jamaicans with special needs fill out forms for medication, food and educational assistance for the young.

A native of Dearborn Heights, Michigan, and a Franciscan friar since 1972, Brother Vince previously served as local minister and administrator at St. Anthony Shrine in Cincinnati (1995-2002).

Brother Vince admires the generosity of many of the foreign visitors who show up at Mary Gate of Heaven in Negril. “Tourists come from all over the world,” he says, “and their financial support helps keep the Jamaican Church going. Catholic tourists and Jamaicans alike—celebrating together in our little parish—see that we all belong to one Church!”

Although tourism has great benefits for the Jamaican people, notes Brother Vince, it also contributes to increased crime, drugs, prostitution and other social problems. But Christian leaders in Negril, including friars from Mary Gate of Heaven, have united to address some of these problems. A public protest against X-rated clubs, for example, was among the actions taken by this group to draw public attention to the issue and help protect the common good.

Assistance from the laity. Jamaicans Kathleen Williams, Yvonne Forrest and Pearl Distin are known as the “Three Pillars of the Parish” at Negril. The title, though a bit lighthearted, rings very true, say the friars.

Kathleen, who works for a local hotel, is a convert. Trained at the Catechetical Institute of Jamaica, she is a catechist at the parish, teaching children about the Catholic faith every Sunday before Mass.

Yvonne cooks for the friars, but her service goes far beyond that. She and Pearl organize and cook for fund-raisers at the parish, and distribute food and clothing to elderly, poor shut-ins. The friars also see this trio as great resource persons and advisors regarding everyday questions and problems arising in the community.

Also very active is Sydney Lawrence, a native Jamaican, who has a real-estate business and is a member of the parish council. A long-standing member of the parish, he says, “I have seen our Church go from strength to strength, growing with the hard work of its members.” Referring to “the Jamaican style of music” introduced by Brother Mark, he says, “It’s a joy to see the small church full and everyone singing to the lively rhythm of tambourines!”

Two other parishioners who assist the friars are Louie Moo Young and his sister Ethel Moo Young. Of Chinese ancestry, their family has been in Jamaica for five generations. Both are in the hotel business and have helped the parish with their time and generous contributions.

We come now to Savanna-la-Mar (Plain by the Sea). With a population of 16,000, “Sav,” as it is locally known, is the largest town in the diocese. Only Montego Bay—a city—is larger.

Most of the town is built along Great George Street, a busy, mile-long road extending straight to the port and lined with shops, businesses, churches and public buildings.

St. Joseph’s Parish sits rather quietly off the main drag on a sizable plot of land that includes a large church, spacious parish hall, cemetery, friary and a soccer field. The Sunday Mass at St. Joseph’s has some 150 people attending, with well-trained lay ministers, a good choir and accomplished musicians. The parish is blessed by the presence of take-charge lay leaders and dependable parish committees.

Friar “Fix it” and everybody’s helper. Like Brother Mark in Negril, Brother Louie Zant, O.F.M., has been in Savanna-la-Mar longer than the other friars. He came with the first group of friar missioners in September of 2000. Quiet and unpretentious, Brother Louie “gets things done” for the church and for neighbors in need. It’s not uncommon to hear cries of “Hi, Brother Louie!” as he steps onto the town’s streets or drives by in his easily identified “Franciscan Ministries” van.

Before coming to Jamaica, Louie was a key member of the famous “Brothers Work Crew” based in Cincinnati. They did all kinds of construction and repair work in friaries, churches and other buildings under the care of Cincinnati Franciscans.

In Savanna-la-Mar, Brother Louie, now 62, uses his skills as builder, electrician, plasterer, plumber, carpenter and general repairman, not only in supervising the maintenance around St. Joseph’s but also in helping many a poor family or shut-in in Savanna-la-Mar. He’s also active at the weekday Masses at St. Joe’s as server, lector and Communion distributor. He visits the sick and works with the youth, lay leaders and many other groups.

From the Philippines to Jamaica. Father Joe Hund, O.F.M., came to Jamaica in October 2002, serving as pastor at Lucea and then, since October 2003, at St. Joseph’s.

A native of Detroit, Michigan, Father Joe is a veteran missionary—having served in the Philippines (1973-1982) and in the African nations of Malawi and Tanzania (1982-1985). In 1986, Joe, who was a brother, began studying for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1989. After returning to the Philippines (1990-2002), Father Joe decided to serve in Jamaica.

Besides being pastor at St. Joseph’s, Father Joe is dean of the Westmoreland/Hanover Deanery. This is one of the three deaneries in the Diocese of Montego Bay. Presently, all priests in Father Joe’s deanery are Franciscans.

He is also the deanery’s Food for the Poor coordinator. Food for the Poor is an international relief organization, based in Florida, which distributes food and other materials to the poor in Latin America and the Caribbean. He praises the generosity of Food for the Poor “for the abundance of food and other materials supplied to our Franciscan missions.”

The 60-year-old pastor has been pleased with the level of lay leadership already evident in the life at St. Joseph’s Parish. Yet, he says that one of the parish’s top goals is to give even more attention to training lay leaders. The parish is now doing this through the forming of small Christian communities at St. Joseph’s and at the three mission churches of the area. This training program is based on a similar program (and training manual) that was followed by Father Joe in the Philippines.

“In the Diocese of Montego Bay,” he says, “this program was endorsed by the diocesan synod of 2002-2003 as a program for all churches in the diocese. The bishop is 100 percent behind it.

“It’s quite obvious,” he believes, “that laypeople, more and more, have to assume leadership for the parish and its mission churches.” At St. Joseph’s, he notes, laypeople are taking over finances and maintenance of the church. A laywoman is learning to do the parish bookkeeping. When a priest is not available, lay leaders and sisters lead prayer and Communion services.

Branches of the Vine. Father Joe is deeply grateful for the many committed leaders at St. Joseph’s and at the mission churches. This is especially true of Deacon Frederick Morris and his wife, Madge, and other religious and lay leaders. “They are true branches of Christ’s vine producing abundant fruit within our Church community,” he affirms.

Besides being very active at St. Joseph’s, Deacon Fred Morris gives Father Joe vital assistance on weekends at the three mission churches under the parish’s care: St. Mark’s in Grange Hill, St. Luke’s in Little London and St. Julie in Orange Hill. Deacon Fred alternates with Father Joe in providing weekend services for these out missions. At the places Father Joe cannot celebrate Mass on a given weekend, the deacon leads Communion services, preaches and responds to other pastoral needs.

Three years before the year 2000, the Cincinnati province of Franciscan friars, under the leadership of Provincial Father John Bok, O.F.M., began to discuss taking up a new foreign missionary project. Given the dwindling number of friars in the province and the need to honor its existing commitments, the idea represented something of a risk.

Yet, as friars, they did not forget that from the time of St. Francis himself, the Order had always considered Christ’s call to preach the gospel to the nations an essential ingredient of Franciscan life. Ultimately, the province decided to send a contingent of willing friars to western Jamaica.

Spending 11 days last spring in Jamaica among the friars and the people they serve has convinced me that the Catholic faith is alive and well and that, with God’s help, there is great hope for the future.

Father Fred Link, O.F.M., has been the provincial minister of the Cincinnati friars for the last five years. He told St. Anthony Messenger in July: “I am optimistic about our continued ministry in Jamaica. We friars recently made a commitment to Bishop Dufour of Montego Bay to maintain a presence there at least until 2008.

“In fact, we are discussing creative ways to strengthen our presence there, so that more friars, perhaps from other provinces, and even lay volunteers [www.franciscan.org], can use their particular talents to minister with and among the Jamaican people.”  

Jamaica lies 550 miles south of Miami, Florida. Nestled right below Cuba, this Caribbean island was “discovered” by Columbus in 1494. It was a Spanish settlement until 1655 when the British seized it and made it a British colony. Jamaica became a vast sugar plantation, with slaves brought in from Africa by the shipload to work the fields and satisfy Europe’s taste for sugar. Though slavery ended in 1838, discrimination and colonial attitudes did not cease so quickly. In 1962, Jamaica became an independent nation within the British Commonwealth of Nations.

 

Jack Wintz, O.F.M., taught Franciscan seminarians in the Philippines (1969-72). Since then, he has been a writer and editor at St. Anthony Messenger, traveling quite often to mission lands to get his stories, especially Latin America and the Caribbean.


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