The Dominican Nuns on Saba
By. Will Johnson
In 1896 nine Roman Catholic Nuns from St. Martin visited the island of Saba for nine days in The Bottom as well as in Windward Side. They were given such a hearty welcome as if they had come to stay forever. This remained a wishful dream however.
In 1905 a good opportunity presented itself. The number of pupils of the existing private school dropped to ten and the teacher did not get a subsidy any longer.
Msgr. J.A. van Baars O.P. Requested the government once again for a subsidy. He obtained this on the condition that one of the teachers would have a degree of assistant teacher. Sister Betranda Greene had that degree and thus she together with Sister Euphrosina van den Brink were the ones chosen to work on Saba. Prioress Regina Egelee brought both Nuns from St. Eustatius to Saba on August 18th, 1905, where until 1909 they lived in the Presbytery in The Bottom.
The school building which had been rented up until then was rented from the Government. It was situated in Upper town, The Bottom in the home of Lovelock Hassell.
On August 28th, 1905 the school was opened with 63 pupils and this number grew by the day. Father Laurens Mulder requested and got approval from Msgr. J.A. van Baars to build a new school. On August 5th 1906 the new St. Joseph School was dedicated and the amount of pupils grew quickly to 101.
In 1907 Sister Betranda Greene went to live in the “Quarter” in order to take over the so-called “Mountain School.”.
Up until that time the sisters Mrs. Gertrude Johnson bron Hassell and Miss Peter Elenor Hassell had given private lessons there. Sister Bertranda organized with primitive means a classical system for the school. Each weekend she would walk up and down to visit her fellow Nuns in The Bottom and to discuss the progress of their work with the youth of Saba. The accommodations of the Nuns left much to be desired. In the most primitive living accommodations they were obliged to live and to carry out their mission.
An improvement came about when in The Bottom the newly built school was taken into use as a church. To the sacristy a room was added on for the Nuns.
From 1956 until 1962 the Nuns lived in a home belonging to the Government which was used to house off-island Receivers before that time. It was later incorporated into the home for the aged and forms the entrance to that building. In 1964 a small cement convent replaced the former wooden home used by the Nuns in The Bottom.
Also in the Windward Side were facilitated in a small wooden house located between the Presbytery and the Primary School. In 1948 a large wooden house was purchased from Mr. Eugenius Hassell ‘Mijnheer” as he was called. The Nuns gave it the name ‘Providence’. When the Nuns left Saba this building was sold to Mr. Frank Hassell and was purchased before his death by Mr. Ronnie Johnson whose son Mark recently restored it and has it for rent and he did a wonderful job with the restoration of this ‘convent’.
Further development in education continued under the Nuns. In Windward Side in 1955 a new school was opened. In 1954 I recall as a boy, breaking stones for gravel to be sold to the school. Back then there was no stone crusher so you gathered large stones and gradually broke them down with a hammer so they could be mixed with concrete.
In 1957 The Bottom also got a new School built by the same contractor Jacques Deldevert of St. Martin. This school got the name ‘Sacred Heart School’.
Because of the isolation of the villages from each other there were two elementary schools on Saba. The one in The Bottom served that village and the village of St. John’s. The one in the Windward Side or “The Quarter” served that village and the village of Hell’s Gate.
In 1967 it was decided to combine the two schools and transport the children by bus. So if the first grade was in The Bottom, then the second grade would be in Windward Side and so on. I remember going to the 6th and 7th grade in The Bottom before the two schools were combined into one elementary school for the entire island. Living in Windward Side I would have to walk to school in The Bottom and back home each day. Only when the road construction reached the Windward Side the government Willy’s pickup which brought the material for the construction of the road was allowed to give us a lift in the back of the truck. That’s only if it was going in the direction we were and was not loaded with construction material.
In 1970, the Foundation ‘Catholic Education Windward Islands’ was founded. Sister Edelberta de Barbanson was the first President and the late Mr. Henry Every was the first member representing Saba on the board of this foundation.
In 1974, the first local teacher Mr. Franklin Wilson was appointed Principal of the Elementary School. Over the years many locals who had attended a teachers training facility on St. Martin were later able to find employment with the Roman Catholic Schools on Saba. Among them were my brother Walter Frederick ‘Freddie’ Martinus Johnson, Floyd Every, and Frank Hassell all of whom stood before the class for their entire career.
In August 1986 the Foundation for Catholic Education was founded and relocated to the new elementary school on St. John’s.
On September 17th, 1989 hurricane Hugo did extensive damage to this new school and it had to be rebuilt and hopefully no other hurricane will bring the disaster which was experienced with hurricane ‘Hugo’.
The abandoned school in The Bottom came in handy as a teaching facility for the newly established Medical School Foundation by Dr. David de Braauw and my brother Thomas Eric Johnson assisted by then State Secretary Max Nicholson and I as Senator. Because of the local nature of the School we were able to get all the necessary permits from the world health organization in Geneva Switzerland and got the school off to a good start. When David Frederick a former teacher at a school in Dominica was brought in to the picture by me on the urging of Mr. Max Nicholson, the school became a strictly commercial enterprise. We will get back to that on another occasion.
The school in Windward Side was turned over to the Saba Lions Club to manage as a public facility and where they could keep their meetings. The building has been well maintained over the years and was recently renovated.
In 1948 the Dominican Nuns were charged with the management of a Kindergarten. This school was temporarily located in the former house of the Nuns above the Presbytery in the Windward Side. I remember it well. Went there for only three months and then moved on to grade one. My teachers were Dika Peterson, Hildred Johnson and Gladys Hassell. They were in training and teaching at the same time. I remember an incident which drew up the whole village. A dentist was visiting the new Kindergarten. One of the children was asked to open his mouth. Another student (not me) whispered to him that the dentist was going to pull out his remaining teeth. He put down such a bawling and led a choir of screamers that everyone in the village came running to see what had happened. I had not had to deal with Sister Arcadia as yet so no need to fear. Later kindergarten teachers were Mrs. Elaine Peterson-Johnson, Mrs. Janice Johnson and her
sisters Patsy and Velma.
In The Bottom the Kindergarten was started in 1948 as well and was in the room used by the Nuns as a Convent before that. Rose Johnson was a teacher there in the beginning, also Claudia Johnson, Velma Johnson and Janice Johnson up until the nineteen sixties.
In 1974 a new Kindergarten school was opened (The Honey Bees), thanks to the Development Aid Fund of The Netherlands which paid for 75% of the building and the furnishings. In 1967 the Kindergarten teachers received additional training in St. Maarten which courses were under the leadership of Sister Dominica Hillen.
The Dominican Nuns were involved in many more lasting activities. In 1960 Sister Waltruda Jeurissen composed what is now the Saba National Song. ‘Saba, oh jewel most precious, in the Caribbean Sea. Memories will stay of thy beauty, though we may roam far from thee.” etc.
The Christmas before her death in The Netherlands I received a Christmas card from her as did many more of her friends on Saba. She must have had a premonition of her death. In my collection I am most sure that card is still somewhere among the many other letters which I have kept over the years.
The duties of the Nuns consisted of much more than the study to get teaching certificates, preparing lessons for the students and organizing education in general. They also took care of the cleaning and upkeep of their own homes and gardens, also of the schools, playgrounds, youth club locations, churches and sacristies. For their own housekeeping they did their own purchases and they also cooked for themselves when the maid was not available. They were also responsible for the school meals of the children. Besides that they did their own laundry and only in the nineteen sixties they got a washing machine. Before that with the help of local women all the laundry was done by hand.
The Nuns were also sextons for the churches and took care of the sewing and darning for the church and presbytery. Besides that they took care of the Administration of the Schools, the youth work and their own housekeeping.
In 1974 Sisters Arcadia O’Connor and Waltruda Jeurissen left permanently for The Netherlands and the Catholic education in The Bottom was turned over to laymen.
In 1983 the last two Nuns residing at Windward Side Sister Agatha Jansen and Sister Benedicta Bisschop left for Holland.
The departure of the Nuns was not without its controversy however. The two homes of the Nuns were sold to the opposition (religiously speaking) and people who were of the opinion that these buildings belonged to the church were disappointed. Father Anton Janssen who came to Saba from Cameroon was very upset that no provisions were made for a religious group to follow. Both Ronny Johnson and I offered to pay passages for two Nuns from Cameroon to come and work here. He was thankful but after reflection he told me that he had found a group in Trinidad called ‘The Living Water Community’ and he thought that culturally and linguistically they would be closer to Saba and he was right of course. They came here in 1988 and became a much loved part of the Saban community.
In 2017 the Sacred Heart School put out a booklet on the 112th anniversary of the school. I provided most of the old photo’s for the booklet. This article is not a history of the school however but of the involvement of the Nuns in education on Saba. In 2017 the community was once again sorely disappointed with the departure of the Living Water Community whose work is clearly illustrated in the booklet of the school anniversary.
Just a couple of years ago under the direction of the late Mr. Franklin Johnson the old Presbytery in The Bottom was torn down and rebuilt in a community effort for use by the Living Water Community. We did not think then of putting the building under a Foundation for the use of this religious group for their work with the youth of Saba. We are grateful to them and to the Dominican Nuns for their work with the Roman Catholic Schools, the church and the children of Saba. Worldwide the Church of Rome is in a serious dilemma. The big question now is Quo Vadis Roman Catholic Church of Saba?
In the eighties there was a proposal to place us under the diocese of Antigua. I was all for it. Others cried shame on me for not wanting to stay with Curacao. People here who tried to get a meeting with the Bishop of Curacao were ignored, and the situation shows no sign of improvement. It is what it is and we will have to wait and see what the future of the church on Saba will be, if there is a future.
Sources; Translation by me from Gods Wijngaard in de West by Valdemar Marchar .
Mathias S. Voges’ book in Dutch on the history of the Nuns in the Dutch Windward Islands.
Also Dr. J. Hartod “De Bovenwindse Eilanden”.
Geschiedenis Missie Curacao, and other publications in Dutch of the activities of the Roman Catholic Mission in the West Indies.