The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Inspecting Sister Helena’s class 1892

Inspecting Sister Helena’s Class in 1892.

By; Will Johnson

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Photo from 1910, first school and convent St. Maarten

Only two years the Dominican Nuns had been working in the Windward Islands. The late Father Niewenhuis already, during the life of Monseigneur Niewindt made serious efforts to get Nuns to establish a school but the difficulties then were too great. However, Philipsburg for a large part can be thankful to Father Nieuwenhuis, because when he died, he left monies behind to establish a Roman Catholic School on St. Maarten, which Foundation would bear his name. Only in 1890 would Father Onderwater, the successor of Father Nieuwenhuis succeed to get Dominican Nuns for his school.

One should not have great expectations of that first effort to give regular education in those days on such a small island.

The demands then after all were much less than these days. Nowadays such a school we would mockingly refer to as ‘an advanced caretaker school’.

Let me try in a short depiction to give you to some extent a realistic look at the situation back then.

group-photo-nuns-on-st-maarten-1902

Group photo from 1902 with Sister Helena fourth in the back row. Photo’s taken from the book by the Hon. Mathias Voges on the 100th anniversary of the Dominican Nuns in the Dutch Windward Islands.

‘There strolls Father Laurentius Suermondt, the successor of Father Onderwater, through the Front Street wearing his blue spectacles. The man all his lifelong days had been suffering with bad eyes. It is ten minutes to one that he is on his way to the school, but today he will be going especially to the lowest class, which he visits the least. He proceeds straight to the not very large classroom, where Sister Helena Jacobs sees the opportunity to calm down the unbelievable number of ninety mostly small children and besides to try and teach them something as well.

Although already before entering, a bustle had betrayed his arrival. Even Sister Helena could not keep the children quiet; suddenly there is a deadly silence, when the sturdy figure in a white habit with the blue eye glasses appears in the doorway. It is more difficult all of a sudden to make ninety half wild boys and girls into well drilled civilized children who have had no training at home and who have never been to school. But in the long run it will turn out well.

In the presence of the Nuns the children have already lost a lot of their shyness and introvertedness, but when the strong presence of their spiritual shepherd appears, they suddenly crawl back in their shell where only with much patience and tact they can be brought out again.

The Father will also try to do that. He starts very tactfully with here and there to tap a dead shy toddler , in a good natured way, on his curly head, with the words; “What a strong boy you are already!” Or; “I can see this is a very strong girl, Sister.”

sister-euphrosine-van-den-brink

Sister Euphrosine van den Brink

After  having spent some ten minutes expressing such diplomatic reassurances  the reality appears, that the throbbing children’s hearts began to beat back normally again and the frightened look on their faces started to disappear from their eyes again. The Father observes this with satisfaction and ventures to take it one step further. He bows condescendingly over a young boy with a mischievous face and asks as soft as his full male voice can be made;” How old are you little one?” Oh Lord. He had not expected this from that clever looking little fellow. Silently the dead shy face descended between the hands on the bench. No answer. So then try it again with another one, but all around there was zero on the request. One head after the other descended quietly on the bench. As a last resort the priest looked with a sort of despair to the Sister, who was watching the situation with amusement. She had not expected any different results.

“You thought of course that you were asking something simple and easy; said Sister Helena smiling, but here not one child knows their age, nor do their parents. It appeared indeed that large oafs of girls from twelve to fourteen years bluntly maintained that they were four years old and absolutely did not understand that this was laughable to believe that.

sister-regina-egelie

Sister Regina Elegie

Father Suermondt did not allow himself to be knocked off the field easily. He knew he had lost the first round. They would at least know their own name he was sure. Sitting there was a large girl with bold eyes, who dared to look at him. Smiling the priest walked over to her and asked her with his most engaging face:” What is your name, dear child?’ Promptly the answer came: “Miss, Sir.” “Miss?” Miss What?” Miss how?” Perplexed the child looked at him. She had given her name and obviously the father was still not satisfied. Considering that according to her there was not more to add to this, she remained quiet and avoided the searching eyes of the desperate priest. He was however completely unexpectedly helped out by the observation of another child: “No Sir, she name Mary Elizabeth Washington, but they call her Miss.” The floodgates had been opened. It rained now with clarifications; “She mother name Williams, she call Magdalen Williams. Another one shouted out. “No sir she father gone.” And finally a fourth one brings you completely up to date: “She had never no father, Sir!”

Father Suermondt succeeds wonderfully to suppress his laughter and pretends to have interest in the information given. With courage he continues the investigation and gets to hear names like Mamsel, Lady, Baby, Pappa etc. Pleasant homely names, which in any case are more pleasant than the laughable grotesque names as Duchess, Duke, Prince, Princess, November, October etc. which were common back then and found among descendants of slaves.

Profoundly satisfied with the information obtained the Priest now directs his attention now to the Nun with the request to let the children render a song. That went fine. Together they had more courage than one by one and Sister Helena had difficulty to reign them in, otherwise the singing would have ended up in an ear piercing scream.

What a thing, there they are singing a very nice Christmas Carol and father Suermondt is reminded with a smile that last year at Christmas he was awakened with this same carol by a children’s choir which had come an hour before Midnight Mass to sing in front of his Presbytery.

“Can they also pray well, Sister?” the father wants to know afterwards. And then it breaks loose in stately chant, slowly, clearly, and without wavering: “Our Father, Hail Mary, and I believe in God the Father.”

The priest is in his element. A treat must be given for this performance. The large bottle of candy which has been kept hidden until now can no longer be hidden and triumphantly he raised the bottle in the air which was received by all with wild enthusiasm, to the despair of Sister Helena who could not maintain order in the face of so much temptation.

The candy is distributed, but the Sister in the meantime has thought up a trick to divert the attention of the children and to postpone a general candy party until after school. She organizes a game whereby the children must recite and at the same time make movements with arms and legs, so that it would be impossible for them to pay attention to their sour balls or liquorice. The trick only works partially. For many the temptation is too much and they still go on eating their sweets. To extend the pleasure somewhat, some of them take it after some minutes out of their mouths and the reduced to half sourball disappears in the pants pocket. Some of them even sit on it or place it under their feet as a precaution against it being stolen by one of the class mates.

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One of the priests in front of the Presbytery

The priest was very satisfied with his thorough first inspection of the newly born Catholic education in his small isolated parish and let it be known that he wanted to return to his presbytery. Sister Helena clapped her hands, a sharp clap, and all of the children stood at attention. Another clap and the entire class said in concert: “Goodbye Father.”

The Inspection was now over and done with (I assume now in 2016 that the Father after such a stressful school Inspection was headed back to the Presbytery for a well-deserved siesta.)

When the old timers read this on St. Maarten they will smile appreciatively thinking back on those good old days. Their children and grandchildren went to school to the very same Sister Helena and to good old Sister Euphrosene and to the so generally loved Sister Regina. I am most certain that half of the girls of Philipsburg presently are named Regina, as all mothers wanted to name their daughters after Sister Regina.

Yes, yes, the beginning was difficult, very difficult but our good Nuns can now in retrospect be proud of the excellent work which their pioneers brought about on St. Martín.

Curacao, 1951.

Taken from the book “Our Windward Islands” by M.D. Latour O.P. Curacao 1951 and translated from the Dutch language by Will Johnson.

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