The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Father Kistemakers visit to Saba in 1843

Bishop Joannes Fredericua Antonius Kistemaker

Bishop Joannes Fredericus Kistemaker (1860-1866). He started out as a Parish priest on the island of St. Eustatius and visited Saba in June 1843.

Father Kistemaker’s visit to Saba in 1843. By; Will Johnson Our substitute priest as I write this is an old German priest, Father Joseph now retired in Chicago, who served many years in Indonesia. Last Sunday he was talking about Christian faith missionaries. He said he could not understand what had happened to Holland. According to him in the past two centuries Holland had been number one in sending out missionaries to third world countries. He ended his sermon by declaring that now “Holland has a flat tire.” He gave no further explanation but messed up my thinking in the process as now when I hear any bad news coming out of Holland, I think to myself:”Holland has a flat tire.” One of those missionaries was Father Joannes Fredericus Antonius Kistemaker who was born on August 22nd 1813 in Oldenzaal and came out to Curacao on March 1st 1837 after he had become a priest. His career in the islands brought him to the post of Bishop (1860-1866) eventually. In 1841 he was sent to the island of St. Eustatius to start up the Roman Catholic Church on that island. In 1843 Bishop Niewindt instructed him to go to Saba to see what could be done there. Saba was first Presbyterian and later on became totally Anglican. The problem starting a church on Saba was the fact that no one on the entire island spoke any Dutch. It was difficult finding a priest who could speak English fluently enough, to convince someone to leave the established Anglican Church behind to go back to the Catholic faith.

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Landing in a small boat at the Ladder Bay in former times.

Anyway in the month of June 1843 father Kistemaker, making good on his promise to the Bishop decided to visit Saba. Bishop Niewindt himself had been to Saba in 1836 an interesting story in itself. This I have already written about in an article on the history of the Church of Rome on Saba. Father Kistemaker had already hired a boat when he was suddenly called to St. Kitts. The resident priest there was absent from that island and in the meantime the Roman Catholic doctor had become seriously ill. Father Kistemaker left St. Eustatius in the middle of the night in a small boat, which had been sent from St. Kitts to fetch him. He made it to St. Kitts at the break of day and was able to give the doctor the last sacrament immediately upon arrival and the doctor passed away the following day. He left behind a wife and ten children. The doctor was known as one of the best doctors in the region and was also a big support for the catholic priests in this emerging parish. Two days after the funeral Father Kistemaker took upon himself to go to Saba in an open boat. Only they who have experienced this trip themselves, know how torturous that is; one arrives bruised, shook up, starved and on fire of thirst, dirty and wet through and through from splashing sea water. Wonderful!

The Bottom from 1890 as it would have looked in the time of Schorer.

The Bottom from 1890 as it would have looked in the time of Kistemaker when he visited in 1843.

Father Kistemaker obviously did not travel first class. That was also available in those open row boats back in the day. I have a letter from Richard Goddard of Barbados who told me that his cousin “Joey” Hassell had told him that he had travelled first class from St. Kitts to Saba in an open rowboat. Richard asked him: “Can you please explain?” To which “Joey” told him that second class passengers sat on the side of the boat where the waves were coming from thus shielding the first class passengers on the other side from the onslaught of the waves. And so you paid more for that side of the boat. I remember also a story with my uncle George Leonard Johnson going to St. Kitts on the M.S. “Baralt”. He was sitting next to Agnes Johnson of Hell’s Gate and smoking his pipe. He must have dosed off and when the ship lurched he was thrown overboard. Agnes finally noticed that he was not sitting next to her and shouted out the alarm. Sometime later my uncle was located in the sea and rescued with his pipe still in his mouth. Father Kistemakers description of this small, curious island is very good and we have translated it from the Dutch verbatim for our readers to enjoy.

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Everything was uphill in those days with very narrow pathways and everything had to be carried on head.

Description of Saba! “That island is small, but very high, which rises lonely from the waves and has its crest stuck in the clouds. One finds there two, or if one wants to, three villages with a population of sixteen or eighteen hundred souls. The lowest village, which is The Bottom, the most important one, is no less than 1200 feet above sea level and of all things is called “The Bottom”. The path leading to there is so steep and rocky, that neither a horse nor a mule is capable to tackle it. Someone, who cannot climb very well, such as in many cases the elderly, and the women, are simply carried up by blacks,. The inhabitants call the path “The Ladder” and indeed it does resemble such. There is however a better path on the other side of the island, but because of the high seas there which make the landing often impossible, that one is seldom used. For me there was no other way than to climb up “The Ladder” to The Bottom. Everything was ready when I set foot on shore to haul my trunks and baggage up the steep incline.


This is what the original Ladder Bay road used to look like.

The landing place itself was miserable. Seldom one arrives on shore at Saba with dry feet; a raincloud burst loose above our heads when I stepped out of the boat. There was a tree nowhere, neither a house to be found in which to hide. Luckily the rain lasted only briefly and now the blacks climbed panting and sweating with their burdens on their heads, ahead on the steep and dangerous path, while I with my two small and still half sea-sick altar servers followed the porters slowly. After a very long and stressful climb we finally reached the so-called “Bottom”, thanking God profusely that we had arrived thus far. If it had taken longer my tediousness would have likely turned into desperation

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This was the start of the road to the Ladder Bay above The Gap. In the seventies we took out the steps and the road was made into a motor vehicle road al the way to the home of the late Rebecca Levenstone.

. “Now I was at my destination, a level and fruitful valley, surrounded on all sides by high, green mountain tops which was very pleasing to my eyes; a cool wind blew refreshing against my sweaty face; and while walking on a level terrain while inhaling a pure fragrant air, had a magical effect on the exhausted lungs. In less than no time the blood flowed again unhindered, through all my veins and I felt as refreshed and healthy as I had ever been. This was also the case with both of my boys. No Lodgings. There is no lodging to be found on the whole of Saba. The village consists of fifty or sixty wooden houses most of them small and in no particular order built among each other. Some days before I had notified the Commander of the island (Edward Beaks) of my arrival and it was through his friendly intervention that I found lodging in a small though not unpleasant little house, the dwelling of two protestant spinsters, who were good enough to make it with everything in it, available to me, as long as during the day I would allow them to use one of the two rooms

Old Ladder Bay Road

The real old Ladder Bay road went partly down the gut and partly down the ridge. The cemented part on the ridge was done in the nineteen thirties and I got a project to restore the one on the ridge which we know today.

.” The Reverend Father had no objections against this arrangement .During the nine days that he remained on Saba, he enjoyed there hospitality such as he could never have expected. The only remaining problem was where he could have a Holy Mass. The house was much too small, even for the few Catholics which Saba afforded and there was no Catholic church on the island. Fortunately there was a Catholic teacher who not long before had established himself on Saba. He willingly made available his schoolroom for the Holy Service. A table was converted to an altar and the desk of the teacher was ideal for a pulpit. Each morning the improvised church was full to capacity and many people had to be satisfied with standing room only on the outside. Easy to understand this was a piece of luck, a formidable happening and one had to profit from everything that could be experienced. On Sunday the priest sang a High Mass and during the week he preached every evening in English and also prayed in English. Several Protestant ladies volunteered, now and then, to sign a hymn, of course a Catholic hymn. Although the entire service naturally was Catholic, there was a typical Anglican character over it. The hymns were sung while standing and each verse was first read in a distinguished manner by the schoolteacher. Everything however was very edifying and the priest let the community peacefully flow with the tide. The preaching of the Catholic faith caused much amazement among the Sabans. The nonsense which they had been told about the Catholic faith was vastly different from the Catholic teachings as was taught by the Catholic priest (Father Kistemaker). The last evening Father Kistemaker baptized two children, a gave a rousing departure sermon and was amazed after the sermon to find no less than eleven respectable ladies waiting on him, to announce their wish to be taken up into the Catholic Church. They requested him urgently after the hurricane season (thus after September 25th) to be willing to come back and then for longer time than now. They already had catechism books and they were very happy with several books about the Catholic Church which the priest provided them with.

The Ladder 02

This was in better days when the path was maintained but for someone coming to the island for the first time it was an experience long remembered. The Ladder Bay Road.

Each religion is good. The Anglican priest was exactly in those days on a journey, but came back from the outing on the same day that the priest intended to depart. The boat delayed the departure however until the following day and the elderly clergyman came immediately to pay a visit to the priest, who had time to return the visit. The clergyman told him that he was already forty years in the West Indies and was born in Ireland (John Toland) and was originally an orthodox Anglican, but as time went by he became more liberal in his opinions; each Christian religion according to him was good; especially against the Catholics he harbored no grudges. He had just been received very friendly by the Catholic priest on St. Thomas and some years ago had enjoyed the hospitality of different priests on Guadeloupe and even by the Bishop of Basseterre of that island. He had constantly gone to Mass by the Catholics there and he regretted very much that he had not had the opportunity, to attend the services of Father Kistemaker. He complained of the stubbornness of the Sabans and urgently appealed to the priest to take them to task once and for all. After that they said a hearty farewell to each other.

105 - Saba-August 2007 - The Ladder-01

This is the shaded part of the Ladder Bay road and many visitors to Saba walk it down to experience it.

Many Sabans were seamen and the rest lived from farming. Commerce was unknown it can be said; there was not one warehouse or shop on the entire island. In this aspect much has changed since one hundred years ago. There was no garrison, not even a militia and there were no taxes. There was no doctor and the clergyman together with his wife practiced this profession with combined forces through a lack of better. Most of the inhabitants were white, but despite that the Sabans were not ashamed to work in their rough linen clothes in the fields the same way as the least among the slaves. The island is very fertile; European vegetables were grown there and one could find there many sheep, goats and cattle. The climate is healthy and inviting; it can get cool and the inhabitants complain even of cold at times; this is a natural consequence of the high elevation above sea level. Several hundred feet higher, at a distance of one hour from The Bottom, lays Windward side, another Saban village. Father Kistemaker also received an invitation from there to come and preach, but a lack of lodgings caused him to postpone this undertaking until his following visit. Finally in the night of July 1st 1843, Father Kistemaker landed once again on St. Eustatius the island where he was stationed and thus ended his outing to Saba.

  • This short history is part of the History of the Church in the Windward Islands written by Father Brada ( Willibordus, Menno, Jan) in Willemstad, Curacao in 1952. We took the liberty in the translation to make one important change. Where in Dutch, Father Brada referred to Methodists, this should have been Anglican. Saba only for a short time and in a very limited way experienced Methodism and the order of their services differs greatly from that of the Catholics compared to the Anglican service. I will write a separate article when I get a chance on the Reverend John Toland. He and his wife from Antigua were the grandparents among others of the Vanterpools and some of the Richardson’s of St. Maarten and I have contact with some of his descendants in the United States who now refer to themselves as “Tolan”.

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