Catholics in the Bahamas: A Brief History

Stamp of the St. Francis Xavier Mission

Early History

Catholics first arrived in the Bahamas when Christopher Columbus landed on San Salvador in 1492. Though the Spanish brought Catholicism with them on this journey, it did not thrive on the islands. The Bahamas subsequently developed a trade connection with Charleston, South Carolina which resulted in the Vatican granting the Diocese of Charleston spiritual jurisdiction over the islands in 1858. Following the Civil War, however, the Diocese of Charleston could no longer effectively exercise jurisdiction over the islands, and the Vatican eventually transferred the Islands to New York on July 25, 1885. Throughout the years of the jurisdiction of Charleston and New York, many priests came and went in the Bahamas, as they used the islands as a place for recuperation. It was not until New York had spiritual jurisdiction of the islands that a permanent presence and a mission was established.

The first priest officially sent by the Archdiocese to the islands was Father Cornelius George O’Keefe in 1885. O’Keefe oversaw the mission until 1889. Father Dennis O’Flynn succeed O’Keefe as pastor from 1889-1890 and was then followed by Father Bernard Reilly from 1890-1891.  Shortly after, Benedictine priests were sent to establish missions on the Bahama Islands. The first Benedictine priest to arrive in the Bahamas was Father Chrysostom Schreiner, in 1891. He reports to Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan in a letter that about 50 Catholics lived in Nassau when he arrived. The Benedictines who had been stationed at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, immediately began to build churches on the islands so that their new congregation might have a place to worship.

The first church established was St. Francis Xavier, which was dedicated by Archbishop Corrigan in 1887. In 1891, Father Schreiner was appointed vicar forane of the Nassau Mission.  A vicar forane is a priest who is appointed to be the bishop’s representative.  The central location for the Benedictines in the Bahamas was The Priory on Nassau. The Nassau Mission continued to grow and expanded to the other islands in the Bahamas during Father Schreiner’s time. In 1893, a mission was established on Andros Island, about 35 miles from Nassau, followed by St. Mary Saviour’s Church at Behring Point in 1897. Missions were also established on Harbour Island. The goal of these missions was to not only establish a Catholic presence on the islands, but to also encourage the conversion of the native Bahamians.

The Sisters of Charity, from Mount St. Vincent on the Hudson in New York, were also present during the formation of the Nassau Mission. They arrived on October 28, 1889 under the leadership of Mother Mary Ambrosia. The five sisters who  were selected to work at the Nassau Mission were Sister Marie Dolores Van Rensselar, Sister Teresa Alacoque Nagle, Sister Mary Casilda Saunders, Sister Mary Mercedes Donovan, and Sister Maria Corsini. The sisters established a convent on West Hill Street in Nassau and opened St. Francis Xavier School, a free school for children. The Sisters of Charity were the first Catholic nuns to establish a residence in the Bahamas as well as to establish the first Catholic school on the islands. In 1890, they opened a private school called St. Francis  Xavier Academy. When Father Schreiner arrived in the Bahamas in 1891, there were 150 students at the school. By the end of the Archdiocese of New York’s jurisdiction in 1932, there were seven schools, one convent, and a nursery and dispensary established by the Sisters.

 

Life after the Archdiocese of New York

The Archdiocese’s of New York jurisdiction over the Bahamas officially ended on February 7, 1932 when Cardinal Hayes elevated Reverend Bernard Kevenhoerster to prefect apostolic of the islands. As a prefecture apostolic, the Bahamas became its own ecclesiastical unit, no longer under the jurisdiction of New York. At this time on the islands of New Providence, Andros, Harbour, and San Salvador there were eight churches, three chapels, and three churches that were in the process of having buildings constructed.  Bishop Bernard became the first bishop of the Bahamas in 1933 when the Bahamas was raised to a vicariate apostolic, one step closer to becoming an official diocese of the Catholic Church.  He first arrived in the Bahamas in 1929 as vicar forane, assuming the position following the death of Rev. Schreiner. Bernard was sixty years old when he arrived in the Bahamas, an age when many priests were retiring. Instead, he went right to work and was successful in fundraising money to expand the Catholic presence in the Bahamas as he built numerous schools and churches. Bernard’s influence spread beyond the borders of the Bahamas as he established the Friends of the Bahama Missions organization in New York City which became a steady source of funds for improvements on the islands. Bishop Bernard remained in charge until his death in 1949. Under his tenure, the Catholic influence in the Bahamas expanded greatly as he opened 24 missions and parishes on the different islands.  

By 1954, the number of Catholics in the Bahamas was 13,054, 15% of the Bahamian population. During the previous eleven year period, the Catholic population had increased by 86%. Finally in 1960, Pope John XXII created the Diocese of Nassau with Bishop Paul Leonard Hagarty, the second bishop of the Bahamas, installed as its ordinary, or leader. At this time there were more than 20,000 Catholics living in the Bahamas. Many lay missionaries came to work on the islands during the 1960s and 1970s, increasing the number of Catholic converts during those years. In 1999, the Diocese was elevated to Archdiocese of Nassau and consists of the Diocese of Hamilton, Bermuda and the Mission of the Turks and Caicos Islands. In 2015, the Archdiocese is administered by Archbishop Patrick Christopher Pinder, a native Bahamian. There are over forty parishes in the Archdiocese.

Below is an excerpt from the 1922 Catholic Directory. This shows what the Nassau Mission was like when Cardinal Hayes visited in 1922.

The Archdiocese of NY consisted of 9,183 square miles of which the Bahamas consisted of 4,466 sq. miles.
Nassau, New Providence (1887) (British Possessions), St. Francis Xavier’s. (Legal title: The Roman Catholic Vicar Forane in the Bahamas) Very Rev. Chrysostom Schreiner, OSB, V.F. Rector
Missions:
Sacred Heart, East Shirley st., Nassau
Harbor Island, Rev. Bonaventure Hansen, OSB
School:
3 Sisters of Charity
St. Mary’s (1899) Behring Point, Andros Island, Rev. Gabriel Roerig, O.S.B., rector. San Salvador Island, Rev. Leander Roerig, OSB. Andros Island, Mangrove Cay, Boys, 42; Girls, 16.
Schools:
Andros Island (1893), Behring Point. Lay Teacher. Boys 15; Girls 10
Man of War Sound (1911). 1 Lay Teacher. Boys 26, Girls 16
Nassau (1890). West St. 3 Sisters of Charity, Boys, 50; Girls 120
Nassau (1897). E. Shirley St. 3 Sisters of Charity, Boys 50; Girls 98
Convent:
St. Francis Xavier’s Convent. West Hill St. Sisters of Charity. Sister M. Celestia. Superior. 9 Sisters. Connected herewith is St. Francis Xavier’s Academy. Boys 20, Girls 34.


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