The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Sister Arcadia

By Will johnson

I could have entitled this “The St. Martin woman who loved Saba” as her love for Saba, primitive as it was when she lived here, knew no bounds.

She was born in Philipsburg on May 20th, 1902 as Amaria Wilhelmina O’Connor. Her parents were William Frederick O’Connor and Katheline Elizabeth Marie Nadal. She was the last of eight children. Her mother died at the age of 42 in the year 1904. In 1905 her father married Margaret Maria Williams (43). With all those small children you can understand that he needed help to raise them. And so Sister Arcadia was raised by her step mother.

I do my family research on the website genlias.nl. You have to know how to deal with the site. I had a hard time finding anything under O’Connor, so I looked up Conner and Connor and found the information I needed. I later worked under Sister Arcadia’s nephew Alphonse O’Connor. If you were to believe Fons wars had been fought over lesser offenses than the misspelling of the name O’Connor. However other Conners who I was friends with would forcefully claim that the family who used the O’Connor version of the name was just playing big shot and had themselves changed the name of Connor to O’Connor. In any event the family of Sister Arcadia was the only one which used the authentic Irish version of the name.

She was one of several St. Martin young ladies who at the time decided to join the Dominican Nuns who were active on these islands at the time. The others were Sister Modesta Conner and Sister Patienca Houtman. On April 30th 1924 she became a nun in the Congregation of the Holy Catharina of Siena in  Voorschoten. The first Dominican nuns under the leadership of Sister Eugenie Elegie arrived on St. Martin in 1890 and started teaching immediately and then later on started taking care of the sick and the elderly. This resulted in the St. Rose Hospital and in the Sweet Repose being started on the Backstreet in 1909.

Sister Arcadia went to school to Mother Regina the founder of the first mission of Dominican nuns on St. Martin. It is possible that already then she had plans of becoming a nun. After her vows she returned to the islands and served for 46 years in the schools on Saba and St. Eustatius. For the greater part , some forty years she taught school on Saba. She lived together with two or three other nuns. She mostly taught the first class. In this capacity she had the responsibility of preparing her students for their First Holy Communion.

Dominican Nuns residence in The Bottom

Besides the school she also filled different functions in the church. Especially the choir would have her full attention. She also played the organ and directed the choir. With her musical talent she never rested until she considered everything to be perfectly in order.

Around 100 years ago there was no shortage of St. Martin men and women who were willing to work on Saba, as teachers, police officers, radio operators and Administrators.

Among those who served as police officers were police chief Bernard Halley who married Sydney Dowling and they had twelve children. Other Police officers of former times were people like George Halley (1920,’s), Elias Richardson, Roger Cannegieter and others. As for teachers there were THE Buncamper sisters Elize and Coralie. Miss Sue Waymouth while teaching here  fell in love with one of her students René Johnson, and they later married  moved to Aruba and then to Saudi Arabia etc. Among the Conner family we had Julian Conner, his brother Hyacinth and maybe one or more of their sisters. One of the well known St. Martin teachers and uncle of the Conners was Mr. Steve Kruythoff who married Helen Crossley of Saba. He wrote a history and guidebook of the Dutch Windward Islands of which I have two original copies in my book collection.

Radio operators were also from St. Maarten like Mr. Percy Labega, Mr. Raymond de Weever, Mr. Arno Peterson. Agriculturists also like Mr. Clive Peterson. And at the top of the civil servants pile we had Administrators like Max Huith, Charles Ernest Voges, Reginald  Carty , Mr. Carol Labega and Mr. Walter Buncamper.

So as you can see Sister Arcadia was not alone in coming to Saba. When she came here in the nineteen twenties the island was the same as it had been since it’s settlement in the early sixteen hundreds. There was no electricity, no harbor facilities or airport and just goat paths which were given the glorified name of roads. Saba did have lots of captains and sailors and owned many of the large schooners which plied the trade between many of the West Indian islands. There we’re two homes used by the Dominican nuns, one in The Bottom and one in Windwardside . During her long sojourn on Saba, she lived in both of these houses. Because of the altitude and as a consequence the cool climate she loved to live in the Windwardside and spent many of her years on Saba, teaching and living in Windwardside.

It is here that I met Sister Arcadia with much regret until later years when I came to appreciate the work and the frustrating circumstances under which the Nuns were expected to give service to the community. I can assure you that Sister Arcadia was not easy. Her favorite warning was that ” If you are not careful I going to hit you a Peter Sailie. I still have not found out who Peter Salie was. I did experience her rage on more than one occasion. I remember once when the class was misbehaving I saw he digging under the desk. Next thing was her shoe coming in my direction. Like George Bush, I was able to duck the oncoming shoe missile and it hit Alton Johnson sitting behind me. Now you have to know that Sister Arcadia was no small woman. Tall and with pounds to match you had to be constantly on guard for a Peter Sailie shoe missile coming in your direction. I was blamed for ducking the shoe and Alton stayed away from school for awhile. Good thing I was not in politics at the time or I might have been sued for ducking the shoe. For the rest of the time I was in Sister Arcadia’s class I was very attentive to her every move. Any move to go under her desk and I was out of there, which brought on a set of licks. You were instructed to go cut a tamarind branch for her to lick you with. She had figured out that a tamarind branch was limber enough to want you never to have to deal with Sister Arcadia again. And you know what I have still not found out who or what was a “Peter Sailie”. Who knows the course of history. Perhaps the shoe throwing gentleman in Iraq had heard about Sister Arcadia’s ability to throw a shoe like a missile. I don’t remember learning too much in Sister Arcadia’s class because of the constant monitoring of her every move. Even if she moved her hand in the direction of under her desk to scratch her knee I was on the move at the same time in the direction of the door. I guess George Bush has a hang up from that disciple of Sister Arcadia’s in Bagdhad. The reason you don,t see him in public is not because there are those who want to make away with him. No it is because every time he sees someone in a crowd stooping he takes off as if he is about to be tarred and feathered.

Years later when I became a fan of V.S. Naipual’s books I read a hilarious account of his teacher trying to sell him a goat. The teacher used to soak his correction rods steeping in a bucket of water in the front of the classroom. The first thought to enter my mind was that it was a good thing he was not writing when Sister Arcadia was around. I don,t know what the water treatment would have done to improve the licking qualities of a tamarind tree limb, but they must be considerable if you are to believe Naipaul.

Of course there will be those who will remember Sister Arcadia for other things besides the shoe throwing, the tamarind branch whippings and the ever present danger of a “Peter Sailie”, but can you blame me for my thoughts and fears going in that direction when I hear her name mentioned.

However these are reminisces of a child. I came to know her in later years as a caring person who believed in her religion and who worked well with the other nuns with whom she shared a residence.

After 53 years of service she left her beloved Saba and in July of 1977 she went to Holland. In the Catharina convent she continued doing her part. Slowly her capacity for work diminished. Her health deteriorated quickly. On December 23 rd, 1991 she died at Sambeek and on December 27th she was laid to rest in the convent burial ground. She had served a total of 67 years as a member of the congregation of Dominican nuns. People from Saba who were fortunate enough to visit her in her last years in Holland always told of her many questions as to how things were developing on her beloved Saba. The boy who had been the target of the shoe missile attack was in the meantime running the island, and as the years wore on, there are many fond memories of my old teacher Sister Arcadia. I don’t know if she went to heaven with her heavy shoes on. If she did you can be sure that somewhere in that great beyond one has to be careful not to torment her into doing a “Peter Sailie” on you. Fare thee well Sister Arcadia, fare thee well!!

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