The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson


Saba the inaccessible rock.

By Will Johnson

This information is from several extensive letters written by the Roman Catholic priest Father E, Onderwater. These letters were about the isolation and the story of the Priest Father Laurentius Mulder who served his churches on Saba living in absolute poverty, from 1882 until his death on August 3rd 1916.

Father Mulder of Hell's Gate.

Father Laurentius Mulder as a young priest.

The parish priest of St. Maarten, Father Engelbertus Onderwater, former Editor in Chief of the ‘Amgoe di Curacao’, decided to go and spend some days with his confrere Laurentius Mulder, the hermit of Saba. His story of the difficulties of travel back then and on arrival the still more difficult task of climbing up to The Bottom needs retelling as that experience has been unique to each traveler to Saba back then.

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Roman Catholic Priest on St. Martin.

It was shortly after Easter and he wanted to deliver personally an Easter greeting. The journey would take place by boat which means an open tub with one mast and sometimes with half a mast only. Sometimes with no deck with only a hut in the front where the anchor was stored and which could be closed with a lid. There were no accommodations on board. No food was provided, you had to carry with you that which you wanted to eat, if you were so stubborn as to think that underway your stomach could retain any food. The duration of the voyage could not be calculated, it could be six hours, or twelve or even twenty four hours; you never knew that in advance. There was no place to lie down or to sleep. On the bottom of the sloop, around the foot of the mast, there was a pile of rocks and some pieces of rusty iron which served as a ballast. You could lie there if you wished. You could also not bother, it did not help anyway. There is no question of sleeping. You were only exhausted for free…-no, that is a mistake; you had to pay for it as well. This time it turned out to be very bad. It anchored at the Ladder bay, but just too late in the afternoon, at sunset. No Saban came down at that hour to take the passengers from on board with a porter boat to take you to shore.

1890-1910 Church Bottom - Tropenmuseum

R.C. church in The Bottom with Father Mulder to the left.

Nothing else to do but to remain floating until tomorrow morning? Deep despair took hold of the much tortured priest. But the helmsman started to whisper with the Captain. The latter nodded yes and shortly thereafter the priest saw the helmsman busy opening the front of his shirt. The cabin boy shortly thereafter took off everything he had on and splash, splash both of them went overboard, swimming  as best as they could towards the shore of Saba.

After a quarter of an hour both of them were on the beach, that’s if you want to call it a beach. It is a small piece of land, complete covered with large stones which have been given a round shape through the thousands of years rolling back and forth so that there are no sharp edges left. On the beach there were some row boats. The mate and the cabin boy selected one of them, the least leaky one, and pushed it into the water. After ten minutes they were alongside. Father Onderwater climbed over with his limited baggage and was rowed to the shore.

1890-1910 School later church Bottom - Tropenmuseum

Second R.C. church in The Bottom. Later turned into a school.

There he stood; no house, not even a hut to be seen, not even a cave in which to seek shelter and the stars could already be seen in the skies. There was no choice left to him: to climb up was the only option. Where is the road? The road??? Oh, we do not have one here. You simply climb straight up against the cliffs, and you will reach automatically.

The priest looked up in the darkness and only saw a high black mountain, threatening and inaccessible. His courage sank into his shoes. All of his limbs were paining from lying and being tossed around on the heap of stones by the mast; his stomach was empty; he had not eaten for nearly twenty four hours. And in that condition to climb 800 feet against the steep mountain wall without any moonlight! Under those circumstances you do not have to be a child to feel miserable and unhappy. But there was no other choice. Therefore he began to climb. Panting and groaning he worked himself slowly upwards; his stomach famished and screamed for a small meal. When he was perhaps 80 feet on the way, he looked back carefully to see if he was making any progress. There was already a whole chasm under him, deeper and terrifying made so by the heated imagination of the victim. His heart thumped in his throat. Would there ever come an end to this clamber?

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First R.C. Church on Saba. Built in 1860 in Windward Side.

There he heard suddenly voices behind, or rather under him and shortly thereafter he saw the captain, accompanied by the mate and the cabin boy coming along and passed jolly alongside him and walked fresh further as if he were not a human being but a cliff goat. A few meters higher up they sat down, in order not to leave the priest too far behind. Nice attention. Right away they began to ask him a series of questions. The priest remained quiet. He neither had the breath, not the courage to answer them.

If he was pleased with the voyage ( which ,God make it better, had lasted twelve hours); if the treatment during the voyage  had been good ( while the man could not even remember the least what looked like a treatment while during the last twenty hours he had not had anything in his stomach with only a few draughts of water from his own field glass); if the landing with such high seas had not been excellently carried out, (whereby the mate had lost one of the oars and his hat, the captain looking around cautiously and the young cabin boy in vain did his best with the palms of his hands to stop a leak, where the water streamed through, while he himself was baptized in foaming sea water); finally if he was not tired, as Saba rose rather high.1890-1910 Man on Horse - Tropenmuseum

The last question suddenly frightened him into realizing that there was a still a long road ahead. He had caught his breath and come to his senses and as only answer to the friendly questions he asked: How far are we still from The Bottom. Just a small distance, Reverend. There comes the horse of Father Mulder already: let us climb a bit more, than that faithful mare will help you further. Look (he saw nothing) she is energetic and strong and will take you home safely.

Indeed after several minutes climbing – strolling the Sabans called this! – Under a tree which spread its branches broadly, over the road and the chasm, he saw a horse and a man. The latter welcomed the priest and asked him to climb on the horse.

Imagine! On horse up that steepness? If you tell that to your family later on they will tell you that you are bragging. Only a circus rider can do that. And going down the mountain is even worse. But regardless, circus or no circus, it must be done. And then those horses have the unpleasant custom to shave your legs alongside the rocks or on the side of the chasm to walk right on the edge, so that each moment you think to yourself: Here we go! Just after that you get a heavy scratch on your face from a long thorn branch, which you had not seen. In the meantime the gentleman who had brought the horse, walked behind you with encouraging words; do not be afraid venerable; nothing will happen; there is absolutely no danger, the horse knows the road.

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Church in Hell’s Gate built 1907. Father Mulder to the left.

And, indeed to his great amazement, the priest after some time, that he had arrived safe and sound at the first village of Saba, flaunted with the grandiose name Leverock’s Town, but still called by the people The Bottom.

What a bliss to have once again solid and flat ground under ones feet, to enter a hospitable home, where a meal was already prepared, where a friend and confrere welcomed you heartily. You see each other so seldom and a visit is means a lot to you in your lonely and monotonous existence.

After an hour the tiredness was forgotten and the mood much improved. Tell news; Much news! The priest of St. Maarten was a world citizen compared to the hermit of Saba.

On a certain moment Father Onderwater asked his confrere, how it stood with the finances of his two churches.

Finances he asked, while looking searchingly to the ceiling. What is that again? For years already I have not used that word. My collections during Sunday Mass are about ten or twelve cents. There is a fee for use of the benches, but nobody pays that. With that my words such as finances and positive balance scratched from the dictionary.

Certainly, continued Father Mulder, from the outside my churches look very nice, but having said that, that is everything to it. From the inside not even one board is in good shape. Everything has been eaten up and out by weather, wind and woodlice. And my large church in the Windward Side is even in worse condition. There the stench of the rotten boards slam into you as you enter the door. I had to remove the church bell which is something small anyhow from the ceiling posts because the whole thing is so rotten, that on a bad day the roof and the bell would fall on my head.

But is there nothing which can be done to remedy the situation, ventured father Onderwater to remark?

Man, stop asking about helping. When I came here seven years ago as priest, the two churches were already in bad shape. Since then I have by my own self had to tinker and bungle what I could. Mgr. van Ewijk is just as broke as I am. Thus he cannot help me himself. But now the situation cannot go on any longer. It is simply too life threatening to keep Mass in my churches any longer. Something has to be done. But how!

With concern father Mulder looked his confrere in the eyes while puffing on his pipe. The latter looked thoughtfully for some time in front of him. Then he looked quickly and with a blaze of hope in his eyes to the drifting smoke from father Mulders pipe and said: I have it. I know what I will do. I have not been Editor of the Amigoe for nothing. I will dig up my pen and make an appeal to the generosity of the Dutch Catholics. They have never left the Curacao mission in need of help. Some detailed letters in “De Rozenkrans” will do miracles. Take heed of my words.Father Lawrence Mulder buried on Saba.

That evening they continued talking for a long time. During the days following father Onderwater visited both “cathedrals” of Saba and kept his word. In “De Rozenkrans” of 1889 he published three interesting letter, respectively on page 218, 251 and 344. The results were that at the end of the same year at the Editorial Office of aforementioned monthly magazine an amount of f.1392.99 had been sent in as gifts for the poor churches of Saba.

In the year 1890 page 345 there appeared a letter of thanks from father Laurentius Mulder the hermit of Saba, signed by Father Guala Wolsky later signed in a very nice article as “The Man on the Rock”, to express his joy and thanks to the Editorial staff of “De Rozenkrans” for their sympathetic intervention and to the Catholics of Holland for their generous help.

Father Mulder remained living on Saba at the church in Hell’s Gate and was taken care of by the residents of that village. When he died he was buried next to the Roman Catholic Church in the Windward Side.

From the book “Onze Bovenwindse Eilanden by M.D. Latour O.P. 1951 and translated by Will Johnson.



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