Guyana’s built heritage: The Church of the Sacred Heart

Guyana Chronicle
December 22, 2002

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THIS church, which has graced Georgetown’s landscape for the past 141 years, was built to cater tothe needs of the Portuguese immigrants.

In 1858, one year after the Jesuits began their ministry in British Guiana, it was observed by Bishop J. Eldridge that the existing Catholic Church could not serve all the Portuguese immigrants. It was deemed necessary that a church be constructed to allow the “Portuguese, who are the main body of our Catholic church, must and can only be kept to church and their daily duty by ceremonies and practices something like what they have been accustomed to in Madeira.”

Under the direction of Father Schembri, a plot of land was purchased at Main Street for $1000.00 and the construction of the new church commenced at a cost of $1 200. 00. Upon completion, the total cost amounted to $18 000.00. The original edifice, which measured 100 ft by 30 ft, was altered several times over the next 16 years with the addition of choir and gallery porch, two wooden towers, a large sacristy, aisles and the extension of the sanctuary.

The Church of the Sacred Heart was the core of Portuguese carousing in British Guiana. Ceremonies such as the Christmas Novena, processions, the establishment of guilds and other cultural activities, marked the beginning of an era as the church became known for its elaborate celebrations.

The most noteworthy of these activities was the intimate relationship between the Church of the Sacred Heart and the Christmas Novena. The centenary edition of the Catholic Standard provides an interesting insight to the activities of the Church of the Sacred Heart during this period, `for nine days before Christmas the Church opened its doors at 3 a.m. and mass was ushered in with the singing of Bemdita Sejaes’

In 1867, the church was again altered. Italian Renaissance architecture is evident in the main façade and interior of the building. Ceasar Castellani, a Maltese architect, is credited with the design of this façade, which was erected in 1872.

The celebration to honour the Golden Jubilee of Pope Leo X111 in July 1893, was described as a `grand illumination of three thousand lights, the finest ever seen in Georgetown’. In 1898, the commemoration of the fourth centenary of the discovery of the route by Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese navigator saw the transformation of this edifice with a décor of garlands, flags, buntings and lights on the interior and exterior of the church.

When the Catholic Church at Brickdam was destroyed in 1913, the Church of the Sacred Heart became the pro-cathedral. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the church continued its rich and colourful festivities.

Today, this church, which was blessed at a Midnight Mass in December 1861 by Father Schembri, serves as an eloquent reminder of Guyana’s cultural, social and architectural heritage. Its value has been observed by Dr. Ron Van Oers who identified this church to be included as one of the 13 monuments selected in Georgetown’s nomination as a World Heritage Site.

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