I was asked by Mr. Ronny Simmons to write a brief history on the building of the Sacred Heart Church in The Bottom. The plan is to have a commemorative service on March 19th, 2020 on the occasion of the 85th anniversary of the dedication of this building.
I have already written an article on the History of the Church of Rome on Saba. For this assignment I will go more in details on how the present church came about and the previous church buildings of the Roman Catholic Church in The Bottom. Also in the interest of those who may not know I am also proposing that a booklet be put together with other articles and photo’s of the church in the past as a keepsake by those who are interested in the history of the church on Saba, When I get a chance I will also put together a history of the St. Paul’s Conversion church in the Windward Side which was built in 1860 and thus the first Roman Catholic Church built on Saba. Both of these churches were built by the Reverend Father Joseph Philip Thomas Kock.
The first and most famous Roman Catholic Priest and companion of pirates, Pere J.B.Labat visited Saba on Sunday April 17th, 1701 and landed at the Ladder Bay at 10 am. He was received by then Commander Jacob Leverock who invited him for lunch at his home. Father Labat gave a good description of life on the island back then. He was also invited in the homes of several French refugees. He left two days later after having purchased six pairs of excellent shoes made on the island back then.
The dominant Christian religion in 1701 were the Presbyterians who had a church on the grounds of the cemetery now called ‘Potters field’ behind the World War 11 monument. The hill behind it called ‘Parish Hill’ serves as a memory of those days. When Msgr. Martinus Johannes Niewindt (born 17 May 1796 in Amsterdam died Curacao, Thursday January 12th, 1860), visited Saba in 1836 the dominant Christian religious grouping was The Church of England or the Anglicans.
Msgr. Martinus Joannes Niewindt the Apostolic Prefect of the Roman Catholic Church of the Dutch West Indies colony then called ‘Curacao and dependencies”, visited the Windward Islands. Having been on Saint Maarten and Saint Eustatius earlier, he decided to visit Saba. On neither one of these three islands was there a Roman Catholic priest in 1836.
When Father Labat was on Saba in 1701 he did not have missionary intentions. Niewindt most certainly did. At the end of May 1836, he arrived at Ladder Bay accompanied by Manuel Romero, a Venezuelan priest who had come to Curacao a year earlier as a political refugee. Niewindt spoke French and Dutch; Romero spoke only Spanish. Saba spoke English only as it still does today. Except for some five people, the then 1800 inhabitants were illiterate. They, Msgr Niewindt and Father Romero, did bring with them some English catechism books to distribute.
Nevertheless on June 1st, 1836, the first recorded Holy Mass by a Roman Catholic clergyman was said on Saba. He was at the mercy of the hospitality of the Anglicans who did not understand what the Latin Mass was all about, although the ceremony of the Anglican church did not differ all that much from that of the Catholics.
This Holy Mass was held in the house of Engle James Heiliger and his wife Rebecca Heiliger born Beaks. This house much later was bought by Commissioner and Acting Lt. Governor John Godfrey Woods and it is still owned by his heirs. At that first Mass one adult and four (4) children from The Bottom and one child from St. John’s were baptized.
Niewindt stayed in a house at The Gap in the home of a black lady from Guadeloupe named Lahaye who lived there with her son, both Catholic and the only ones of the Roman Catholic religion on Saba. However I read in the life story of Msgr. Niewindt by father G.J.M. Dahlhaus that there were also three Roman Catholics from St. Thomas living on Saba at the time.
One of the first priests stationed on Saba was Joseph Philip Thomas Kock. He was born in Oostende Belgium on August 29th, 1825 and was ordained as a priest on Curacao on December 18th, 1852. In May of 1858 Reverend Kock started his work on Saba. He was the builder first of the St. Paul’s Conversion Church in the Windward Side in 1860, and in 1877 he also built the first Sacred Heart Church in The Bottom. He died on August 20th, 1890 and is buried in the vault of of Peter Hassell and his wife Esther Johnson (my great aunt). The vault is located on the grounds of the church in Windward Side.
The land for the church in The Bottom was purchased from the teacher Gustave Eckerman from St. Barth’s, on condition that he and his Saba wife could live in the house until they died. This building was used in the latter part of the 20th century as a Roman Catholic kindergarten. Some of those who taught there were Velma Johnson, Claudia Johnson and Janice Johnson. For the past years the building has been used as Office of the Saba Housing Foundation.
Apparently the Reverend Father John Toland (see separate article) was buried on this property as he was the grandfather of Eckerman’s wife and must have owned the property. In the church records it is claimed that he had been a Catholic and had abandoned the “true” religion and had served as preacher of the Anglican Church. The Roman Catholic archives state that father G.J.M. Dahlhaus had done a great job by leveling his grave to the ground and thereby erased all memories of his existence.
In the same year (1877) Father J.P.T. Kock the first Roman Catholic church in The Bottom was completed. From then on Father J.P.T. Kock read the Mass every Sunday. It served the communities of the Catholics of The Bottom, St. John’s, Middle Island and Palmetto Point.
In 1909 a new larger Roman Catholic Church was built in The Bottom on the same property. In 1911 Father Laurentius Mulder showed his carpentry skills by building a steeple on the new church.
O February 16th, 1927, after the death of Captain Ernest Hugh Toland Vanterpool and his wife Elizabeth Leverock (daughter of Governor Moses Leverock), his children, none of whom were living on Saba decided to sell the house and large property. The price was $1.800.–Interesting for this history is the following; In the period leading up to 1930 or so the many captains of the time and their families pulled up anchor and moved to Barbnados, Bermuda and the United States, while other Sabans moved to Curacao and especially Aruba where there was more opportunity for long term employment with the advent of two of the world’s largest oil refineries at that time.
In this case the sellers of the property were living elsewhere. Captain Thomas Charles Vanterpool, brother of Captain Ernest then lived between Saba and St. Thomas In this transaction he represented the heirs to his brother’s property.
The home and property were purchased for the Roman Catholic Vicar on Curacao, by the Reverend Father Matthias Petrus de Groen, who was then (1927) serving as Roman Catholic Priest on Saba..
After the property was acquired the home was immediately put to use as a presbytery and the resident priests would rotate the use of the two presbyteries and also when priests and other religious groups visited Saba they were allowed the use of the house in The Bottom.There were many more religious orders in the former Netherlands Antilles back then who paid frequent visits to the Dutch Windward Islands.
On February 15th, 1932. The Provincial Vicar visited Saba. Once again the great need for a larger church in The Bottom was considered and also of a newer school but the necessary money is lacking.
Al expectations lie with the newly appointed Bishop, His Excellency Msgr Verriet, who on February 6th has been anointed as Bishop in Venroy (Holland).
A document dated Saba October 9th, 1934 reminds us of the start of the construction of this building. Father M. Meesters delegated by Msgr. P. Verriet laid the first stone.
It is difficult to imagine that this relatively large stone building was completed in just a little over five months. Everything done by hand back then including the cutting of the stones. A great tribute to those who came from Curacao and Bonaire and those from Saba who worked along with them.
The document in the church archives reads as follows:
In the name of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
The first stone of this church, consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is laid by the Reverend Father M. Meesters O.P, delegated by His Excellency, Msgr P. Verriet, Apostolic Vicar of Curacao, in the presence of the two witnesses Dr. M. Berkenveld and Mrs. Elsie Krugers born Simmons, in the afternoon of the 8th of October 1934.
The leaders of this work of the House of God are the senores Joseph Cornelis and Theodoor de Lanooy, sent from Curacao by His Lordship, with two assistants Lourentio Martis and Henrique Alberto.
May this House of God be built up under the protection and blessing from Heaven and with the assistance of our dear people of Saba as a monument for the glory of God and as a true place of refuge and love for the coming generation.
Father M. Meesters
Saba 8th of October 1934.
Theodoor de Lanooy, Joseph Cornelis and Juan Alberto Henrique (born 12.07.1900) all three were born on Curacao, and Johannes Laurentio Hyacinth Martis was born on the island of Bonaire (born 17.08.1893).
After only five months and some days the lovely church building was completed and dedicated.
From the Church Archives. May 1934. “Plans for the new church in The Bottom are moving along and has been completed to a blue print. Difficulty is that principally the costs for Saba are double as high as elsewhere.
June 1934. Cement building for The bottom has been cancelled after the estimate of the Company Dijkhof and it has now been decided to build the church in stone.
July 1934. Msgr. has decided to send a man from Curacao as foreman for the church project, however it will be a few months before he can come as the man is not yet free from work he is doing on Curacao.
August 1934. Through continuous correspondence Msgr. decided in the meantime that a start can be made by collecting stones for the project, for which Msgr. temporally sent fls. 500.–
All other foundations, ovens, cisterns will be built. under supervision of the resident priest. The stones for the church will be broken up and brought to the place where the large plans are to be carried out. The people of The Bottom are so helpful that after some weeks around 10.000 (ten thousand) hand cut stones are lying in the yard and the costs were less than fls.500.–(five hundred guilders). Accoring to Ronny Simmons he had been told that the stone were collected from up in The Three Casles at a place called ‘The Fire Burn’ and some of those who collected the stones were Christian ‘Kaiser’ Sorton, Stanley Simmons, Joe Ben Woods, John Woods and others.
September; All of a sudden Msgr. has changed the plan for a foreman (Supervisor) from Curacao and is sending 4 strong men from Curacao, of which 2 masons and 2 carpenters to start the work. Also a lot of material such as wood and cement was sent at the same time with the steamer. The same day of arrival namely September 22nd (1934) measurements were taken and the plan laid out. The work is progressing well and the relations between the workers is good.
Since the new church building was taken into use it has experienced many sad occasions with the f funeral ceremonies for such Notables from The Bottom as the former Commissioner Captain Mathew Levenston, as well as Father Anthony Jansen who served the church on Saba for a number of years, and otters. Also occasions for joy in the Roman Catholic community when on July 4th, 1980 the Liturgy of Ordination of Deacon Simon Wilson was celebrated on the Sacred Heart Church. The President was the Rt. Rev. Mgr. W.M.Ellis, Bishop of Willemstad, while the Master of Ceremonies was the Very Rev. Fr. A. Heillegger. Father Simon Wilson was the son of August Wilson and Ann Dunlock August was awarded with a medal by His Holiness the Pope, for his many years of service to the Sacred Heart Church. The altar cloth for the new church was made by Thelma Zagers and others. The first child to be baptized in the new church was Mary Pansy Sagers born January 10th 1934, daughter of Charles Reuben and Eugenie. The baptism took place on April 16th, 1934. The first person to be buried in the new cemetery was James Dinzey (Carrie’s father).
Mrs. Carmen Simmons-Nicholson has been the organist of this church for many years and has been a great helper to the clergy over the years with the functioning of the church.
Also Mr. James Anthony Simmons was always there to ring the bell and to assist the priests in preparing everything for the church to function in a dignified way. He has been followed by Mr, Ronny Simmons also of The Bottom who combines the work formerly done by August and James Anthony. It is Ronnie who asked me (Will Johnson) to prepare a fitting document in commemoration of the 85th anniversary of the church.
The Living Water Community from Trinidad and Tobago served the church and the Saban community for twenty five years. They were introduced to Saba by the late Father Anthony Jansen.
Congratulations on this the 85th anniversary of this church building are in order to all those who worked to make it possible as well as to those who are still working to keep it up despite a declining church attendance. In this drastic changing world of ours it is good to know that there are a group of people who care enough for their church to help to maintain it as a living monument and a place of worship and wonder for the local population as well as to those who visit out beautiful island. TO GOD BE THE GLORY!