St. George's Cathedral: The early years
Part 1 By Cecilia McAlmont
St George's Cathedral 1842 - 1877 St. George's Cathedral: The early years
Part 1 By Cecilia McAlmont
December 18, 2003
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Guyanese, whatever their religious persuasions are all proud to boast, especially when they are abroad, that St. George's Cathedral, our cathedral is the tallest wooden building in the world. However, few of us, including most Anglicans and even members of St. George's Cathedral are aware of the fascinating story of its evolution. The purpose of the next two articles will be to tell that story first of the early years and then give a brief history of the 109 years of the existence of the cathedral since its dedication in 1894.
On the first page of his monograph, A Short History of St. George's, the Reverend Derek H. Goodrich stated: "Any study of the early days of St George's must be related to the development of the Anglican Church in British Guiana and indeed to the whole community; for a church cannot be seen in isolation." A truly significant comment because indeed the history of the church of St. George, the martyr from its earliest days to the present, in several ways mirrors the evolution of the Guyanese society. These include the inequities, discrimination and injustices of the slave society, the continued dominance of the planter class in political, social and religious affairs, the continuing problems over financial matters, the rise of the coloured middle class and the continued struggle of the ex-slaves and their descendants for an equal place at the table.
The first of four Seminar Papers on St. George's Cathedral written by Mr. William McDowell in the 1980's was entitled "The Barren Years" of the Anglican church because English settlers and planters in the three colonies had to survive almost 200 years of Dutch sovereignty without a church of their own. As early as 1747 in Essequebo and 1753 in Demerara the English planters had sought permission to build an Anglican church in both colonies. They complained that they were forced to live heathen lives by being unable to worship in their customary way. In 1796 when the British forces re-established themselves in the colony, they found that there was a total lack of religious observances and that religious services had been suspended since 1790. According to McDowell, the return of the British forces in 1796 "brought with it the refreshing influence of the tailspin of religious fervour that had sprung alive in England towards the end of the 18th century. However, while that influence led to the resolve to build an Anglican church it did not imbue the church with a strong civilising mission. In fact when in 1796 General Whyte brought with him Rev. Francis MacMahon as Chaplain of the Garrison of Demerary, his main responsibility was to minister to the forces and the European population. In so doing he laid the foundation of the Anglican Church in Guyana.
The task of evangelising the slaves was only seriously begun by the Anglicans after the abolition of the slave trade. The Reverend. Mac-Mahon was paid by the state and his religious services were conducted in a small room on the ground floor of the Court of Policy building in Brickdam. The services were held after the Dutch Re-formed Services between 10-11 am each Sunday. The room accommodated only 40 European worshippers. Slaves were not admitted into the church. This was not surprising in the context of the times when there was the fear of slave rebellions and the general feeling that it would be dangerous to the system of slavery to Christianise the slaves. Although they might not be permitted to join the congregation, their moral and spiritual needs were catered for since a register kept by the Reverend between 1798 and 1807 showed a number of baptisms and marriages of slaves.
The Rev MacMahon was succeeded in 1807 by the Rev. William Straughan. He continued to conduct services in the Courthouse room but it was inadequate for the needs of the growing congregation. Consequently, on June 6 1808 a meeting presided over by the acting Lt. Governor was held. It was decided to build a chapel for divine worship in the town. Since citizens had already begun contributing towards the building of the church, a committee was appointed to receive contributions and a Vestry was ap-pointed to govern the affairs of St. George.
It proved difficult to raise the money needed to build the church since many prominent citizens did not honour their pledge to subscribe. When the work was completed on June 1, 1811, monies were still owed to the builders. Eventually the government donated money from the King's Chest and the Court of Policy voted some funds to help defray the costs. Although it was a time of relative prosperity for the colony, the estates contributed very little since "religion was regarded merely as a part of the social ethos and not with deep conviction of its spiritual necessity." To this day financial woes still dog the fortunes of our Cathedral.
On its completion, the Chapel measured 70 feet by 30 feet and from the inception it was announced that it was too small for the 700 worshippers who then made up the congregation. This fact was to be used to preserve the social inequities that were rampant in the society. It was stated that the chapel was too small to permit coloureds to worship alongside whites. Slaves were accommodated in the North gallery. This was a significant improvement since in earlier times they had been turned away from religious services. According to Mc-Dowell, the church of whites gathered meekly to worship a god who was colour-blind. They ensured that class distinctions in the society were maintained in the church. This was done by the pew rent system. The first few pews in the chapel were reserved for the Governor and his entourage, members of the Courts and other whites present. There was no room for coloured folk although they had contributed to the building fund. The Reverend tried to solve the problem by holding special services for coloureds on Sunday evenings. While some white parishioners did not mind coloureds using their pews, others fitted locks to gates to guard the entrance to the pews. The whites also trafficked in the sale of pews. These actions greatly embarrassed the church authorities. The Vestry by resolution condemned the traffic in pews, removed locks that were affixed to pews and threatened to take unpleasant steps if the practice continued. The government supported the authorities in their action against this discrimination in the church. Paradoxically however, pews rent continued to contribute significantly to the finances of the church. Gradually it lost its importance but remained in existence until the early 20th century. In 1820 a gallery was erected in the Southern side of the Chapel to accommodate the coloureds.
By this time there was a virtual volte face in the attitude of the Anglican Church. Slave baptisms continued apace. However St George's also felt the backlash from the 1823 Demarara Revolt. In 1824, the Rev. Austin, a close associate of the Rev. John Smith was deprived of his chaplaincy and prohibited from preaching at St. George's. But the year 1824 was significant for more positive things. Two Bishops were consecrated for the Cari-bbean. Bishop Coleridge was in charge of the Leeward and Windward Islands, Trinidad and Barbados. British Guiana was added to his jurisdiction in 1826. With the coming of the Bishops, the building of a large church "adapted to the metropolis of this valuable colony" was again mooted. The proposed site for the new church was the Parade Ground but strong objections from the parishioners led to the decision being taken to build the church on the present site opposite Carmichael street and visible from all parts of the town
The construction of the church was hastened by force of circumstances. On August 1, 1834, a large number of ex- slaves were in the galleries praising god for their "semi freedom" when a sudden sharp cracking sound from the direction of the belfry caused fear that the galleries would collapse.
By an ordinance passed on November 6, 1837, the Rector and the Vestry of the parish of St. George was authorised to raise the sum of 75,000 guilders on permanent loan. The interest was six percent and was to be paid and the capital redeemed from the pew rents.
The foundation stone of the new church was laid on September 30, 1838 by Governor Henry Light. The colony was made an Archdeaconry December 15, 1838 with the Rev. W. P. Austin as the first Archdea-con. The second St George's was opened for worship in June 1842 but soon became a Cathedral because the Queen issued Letters Patent, August 21,1842 constituting the colony a Bishop's See and ap-pointing Archdeacon Austin the first Bishop.
The Cathedral building which was intended to last a century soon deteriorated because of problems in the foundation caused by the heavy brick tower sinking more than the body of the church and broke the back of the building.
In 1872, the building was condemned as being unsafe but was not abandoned until 1877 when a Pro Cathedral was built on the grounds of the present Deanery until a new Cathedral befitting the Cathedral city was erected.
The Liberal, August 2 1892, described the Cathedral as epitomising the lofty soul of the Guyanese people. It further stated that it displayed the constructional skill of the Guyanese workmen; gave an idea of the economic state of the country at that point in time and served as an unfailing landmark to the progress and civilisation of the people. Then as now that statement is only partly true. In the late 1890's when the Cathedral was being constructed, the sugar economy of British Guiana was passing through a period of economic stringency which was reflected in the poor living and working conditions characterised by the excruciating poverty of a significant percentage of the population. Even members of the dominant plantocracy had fallen upon hard times. Further, McDowell posited that the construction of the Cathedral could not have been possible until the Anglican Church itself had reached a certain level of development in the country. The church's religious work had to grow and spread from the urban centre to its parishes.
This was certainly the situation of the Anglican Church by the last decade of the 19th century. In the early years the Anglican Church in Guyana clearly did not have a strong civilising mission. It catered mainly to the needs of its European worshippers. However, once the church had embraced that mission it pursued it with zeal. Not only did the church establish itself in different parts of the colony, it joined other denominations like the London Missionary Society in the task of converting the enslaved African population.
The tremendous growth in the work of the Anglican Church was due to the commitment and zeal of the indefatigable Bishop Austin who in 1847 challenged the Cathedral to set an example to the Diocese. Ironically, it was a time when the members of the church demonstrated blatant discrimination against non Europeans but according to Goodrich, the Bishop showed great concern for all sections of the community. He noted the fact that as more East Indian immigrants continued to arrive the Bishop insisted that some of the priests learn Hindi. Further, a training school was created for Indians and Cathecists. It must therefore have been a huge disappointment to the Anglican Church that its efforts to evangelise the East Indians met with such little success. This was due, according to Simon Mangru to the problems of demography, denominational policy, and dictatorial action of the planters. Greater success was achieved by the Chinese speaking priests and Cathecists. Education was the second prong
of the Anglican Church's mission to convert both the former enslaved peoples and immigrants. Schools were attached to churches and in 1844 the Anglican Church pioneered secondary education with the opening of Queen's College.
It was therefore an Anglican Church which was immersed in the task of winning souls through the dual approach of evangelising and education that set about the construction of the Cathedral in 1892. The problems, controversy and frustration surrounding its construction were themselves reflective of the turmoil in the evolution of the Guyanese society at that point in time. Firstly, while one of the motives for the construction of the Cathedral was the need for a larger building, there were other less laudable ones. It was a British Colony and it was only fitting that the Cathedral of the established church should tower above the Dutch Kirk and match and even overshadow the Catholic Cathedral on Camp and Brickdam whose presence dominated the landscape and whose work particularly among the Portuguese was significant. McDowell summed up the motives well when he stated that the moral and the political were involved and religious rivalry was much in evidence more than a desire to extend religion. Moreover the hierarchical position of the Anglican Church had to be asserted vis a vis its Catholic counterpart. That goal was certainly achieved. In the first place, the former enslaved Africans showed a preference for the Anglican rather than the Catholic Cathedral primarily because there was considerable antipathy between the Portuguese, most of whom were members of the Catholic Church, and the former enslaved Africans. This antipathy had erupted into riots in 1856 and 1889. Secondly, today when Guyanese think of a Cathedral, for the most part, it is the Anglican rather than the Catholic Cathedral which immediately comes to mind.
The geographical location of the Cathedral site raised concerns due to the controversy over ownership. This dispute was sustained for over a quarter of a century and involved arguments among the Cathedral authorities, government and the Municipality. When it was eventually settled the Cathedral stands partly on the Company Path and partly on lots 3,4,5 and 6 of Lacytown lands.
Designing the Cathedral proved to be a significant challenge. The Cathedral Vestry had negotiated with a Mr. F. J. Cockerel to submit designs including plans and elevation for a new Cathedral church without galleries no doubt in keeping with the fact that it was now a free society, to accommodate 1,500 to 1,800 worshippers. Mr. Cockerel's designs were received in late 1875 and were accepted with certain reservations. However, he died before any concrete plans could be formalised. The architect who finally produced the designs for the building was Sir Arthur Blomfield. His first designs were rejected on the grounds that his choice of brick stuccoed over was unacceptable because of the poor bearing strength of the country's soils which created foundation problems for heavy structures. Secondly there was the concern of the Vestry that the cost of the foundation would exceed that of the superstructure. Blomfield was called upon to submit new designs but certain features of the original design were retained. More importantly the use of local timber was a requirement of the Committee. The Cathedral's foundation was laid on November 21,1889.
The financial constraints in respect of the construction of the Cathedral proved to be less challenging because individuals contributed more generously than in earlier times. For example, when lack of funds stalled the construction, a cheque for $2,400.00 arrived from a member of St Philips Church to continue the work. By 1893 about $120,000 had been spent on the Cathedral two thirds of which had been raised by persons connected to it. On November 8, 1884, the Cathedral which had been completed free of debt was dedicated by its second Bishop, Bishop Swaby. This was a remarkable feat given the straightened economic circumstances of the colony in the last decades of the 19th century. The beleaguered planters reduced wages which triggered a series of working class protests that continued intermittently until the end of the 1930's.
One of the most unique features of the Cathedral is the many memorials which gives the interior its unique ambiance. In fact several parts of the cathedral especially the windows were either gifts from benefactors or in memory of prominent citizens. These memorials more than anything else reflect a social order in which the white plantocracy and commercial interests predominated in the church and in the society. The tradition of memorials has continued in the post independence era. The most recent was the installation of a plaque this month stating that the Cathedral has been designated a heritage site.
The work and development of the Cathedral down to these early years of the 21st century continue to reflect the triumphs, failures and struggles of our society. The specifics of the work of the Anglican Church including that of the Cathedral are well documented in two recent works - the Reverend Derek H. Goodrich's monograph A Short History of St. George's and Ms.Blanche Emmaline Duke's book A History of the Anglican Church in Guyana. It is of interest to note that those who oversee the work of the Cathedral do not hesitate to accommodate the changing social needs of the community in which it operates. Like the rest of the NGO sector, the Cathedral became involved with alleviating the impacts of structural adjustment on the most vulnerable groups in the society, many of whom were it parishioners. There is the Welfare Advisory Council (WAC) which is the umbrella body looking after the social work of the Cathedral. It has a Senior Citizens and medical arm. Monthly clinics are held and many of its beneficiaries are non Anglican. The Cathedral also caters for the needs of its young people through the Lancers Youth Group. Issues of importance to young people are discussed and career and counselling guidance are also offered. The Cathedral's Dorcas society help the needy of the church while its Burial Society helps in the burials of members in need.
A conversation with the current Rector of the Cathedral revealed his passionate belief in the social mission of the Cathedral in the context of the needs of the Guyanese people. In the medium term he hopes to expand the activity of the church especially the work of the WAC. He posited that the churches in Guyana including the Anglican Church, as important members of civil society have not done enough in the task of poverty alleviation and the revival of the society in all its aspects. He intimated that the Cathedral could indeed come to serve as an "unfailing landmark to progress and civilisation of the people."