CHURCH OF SCOTLAND
In 1834, Trinidad was a British colony, and many of the emigrants were Scots. That year, the Greyfriars Church of Glasgow sent newly ordained Alexander Kennedy to Trinidad to minister to them. Rev. Kennedy was from Ayrshire and arrived on the island in January 1836. By the following year work had begun on building a church. The foundation stone for Greyfriars Church was laid on 10th April 1837, and the church was completed in 1838.
Eight years later, Sebastian (Sebastião) de Freitas arrived in Trinidad from the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira. He was my paternal great-great grandfather. Sebastião was among a group of Portuguese refugees desperately fleeing severe religious persecution in their homeland for daring to convert from Catholicism and practice their Protestant beliefs inspired by the Scottish missionary Rev Dr Robert Reid Kalley. Many of these immigrants who fled from Madeira had to leave behind their homes and possessions, determined to start a new life that promised to be free from the oppression and oftentimes cruelty that they suffered.
The earlier Presbyterians in Trinidad, under the guidance of Rev. Alexander Kennedy of Greyfriars, greatly assisted the new arrivals from Madeira who didn't understand English. The Madeiran refugees were allowed to worship at Greyfriars and there was a small building to the east of the church which was used for the housing of some of the extremely poor of the congregation. It is said that during the Cholera (1854) many were attended to there.
With sheer determination, hardwork and resilience, this small group of Madeiran Portuguese, now with freedom to practise their faith in Trinidad, set out to build their own church. In 1854, St. Anns Church of Scotland was completed and dedicated. At last the Presbyterian Portuguese community had their own sanctuary where they could be ministered to and enjoy fellowship in their own language. As described in the historical information published for the 150th Anniversary of the church:
“They felt a particular pride in the new edifice, because their own hands helped in the building of it. Under the able superintendence and wise leadership of their pastor, the Rev. Henrique Vieira - who had a practical knowledge of building construction - many of the members labored willingly in the work: some bringing sand, stone and lumber, for making pews; while some of them arranged to join in paying for a pew between them.”
As seen in the records of marriages, baptisms, funerals and other special occasions, this church has been central to the history of my Trinidad family for many generations. Because of its significance in the lives of so many of my predecessors, as well as many family members who still worship there, I have gathered some historical information giving a background about the church, and the Portuguese whose lives revolved around it.
I am a descendant of Portuguese people - both Jewish and Protestant - who became religious refugees because of persecution for their faith, vividly recorded in the annals of history. I dedicate this page to the memory of my Madeiran Presbyterian ancestors.
according to Alfred's own entry in the Family Bible, were
"united in marriage at The Free Church of Scotland,on 25th June 1881".
Virginia's father Sebastien (Sebastião) de Freitas is standing next to her on the right.
The unfortunate fate of the historic Greyfriars Kirk on Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain, torn down by the greed for land, sloth of its elders, and comic nonchalance of the State, has signalled perhaps the death of the Scots Presbyterian Church in this nation which began its mission here in 1836, under the leadership of the Rev. Alexander Kennedy.
Around 1845-46, there was considerable turmoil in Madeira in 1845-46 when the good and charitable works of the Rev Dr Robert Reid Kalley caused the conversion of over 5,000 natives from Catholicism. These refugees sought the shelter of British warships in the Madeiran area which took them to St Vincent and Trinidad. In the latter island, they were taken into the bosom of Rev Kennedy’s Scottish Presbyterian Church, but were looked down upon by the established local Madeiran community which saw them as heretics. These first Madeirans in the island had originally come in the post emancipation period around 1836-38 as indentured labourers, but the vicissitudes of tropical climate had decimated them and many walked off the estates and became merchants and tradesmen in the poorer parts of the city. This first Madieran group was staunchly Roman Catholic. About 500 of the Protestant arrivals did not stay long in the island and immigrated to the USA shortly before 1850. Those who remained sought to build their own church as a symbol of their piety. They had the support of Henrique Vieira of Madeira who was himself a victim of persecution. He searched for a site for the church and located one on St Ann’s Road (upper Charlotte Street was then called St Ann’s Road because it led directly to St Ann’s via Queen’s Park East) which cost $800. By dint of fervent and heartfelt pleading, Rev Vieira raised the sum for the purchase of the land and set to work building a small chapel of stone and wood which was called the Portuguese Church, United Free Church and Free Kirk, but was officially the St Ann’s Church of Scotland after its location on what was then St Ann’s Road. It was opened in 1854 just before a cholera epidemic ravaged Trinidad and swept away many of the faithful who had laboured in the construction of the chapel.
The founding of the church was described in 1887 as follows: “In 1848 it was reported to the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland that there were 900 Maderenses in the island. Mr de Silva, a catechist at first, was at length ordained as their pastor. His ministry, however, cut short by death, lasted only for a year. He was succeeded in 1850 by Mr Henry Vieira, in the first instance, as catechist, but in 1854, having been ordained by the Free Church Presbytery of Glasgow, he became pastor. In 1872 Mr Vieira accepted a call from a number of Maderenses who had settled in Illinois, but during his ministry in 1853, the Free Church in St Ann's Road had been built. In 1873, the Rev D M Walker, minister of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, a very worthy man, was selected as pastor, and accepted the appointment. For a time Mr Walker preached once every Sabbath in the Portuguese tongue, he having rapidly learned the language.” By 1890, the chapel was showing signs of dereliction and one of the parishioners was none other than George Brown, the famous architect and builder who had come out to the island in 1880, and to whom Trinidad owes its archetypal ‘gingerbread’ house architecture. Brown designed a simple yet elegant stone building, larger than the old one. Some of the stone used in building the walls was obtained from The Cottage which was the residence of the Governor, built at the end of the 18th century and which stood on the grounds of the present Hilton Hotel. This structure was the official residence until the erection of a new one in 1876 which is now called President’s House. In 1912, the church acquired a nearby building once used as a Masonic Lodge and a pipe organ. A fine stained-glass window was added in 1919 in memory of Ernest W Havelock, a young minister who enlisted as a soldier in World War I and who was killed in action in 1916. The St Ann’s Church of Scotland is still a quaint yet important reminder that with willpower, teamwork and leadership, great things are possible.
(Article reproduced with kind permission of the late author's aunt, Patricia Bissessar)
THE ST. ANN'S FREE CHURCH
Historian Angelo Bissessarsingh
The Havelock Memorial is a stained-glass window depicting The Sower,
installed at the church in 1919 to the memory of the much loved Rev. Ernest W. Havelock, the seventh Minister. Rev. Havelock ministered from 1910-1916,
when he left to serve in the Great War where he was killed in active duty at age 33. A newspaper report of his memorial service can be seen here.
Following in the footsteps of several generations of family members, my cousin Carol-Lyn Hart is a member of the congregation. Here she is pictured with her beautiful painting of
The Havelock Memorial, which she donated to the church.
Carol-Lyn Hart née Johnson is the daughter of
Carol-Lyn's 2021 painting of St. Ann's Church of Scotland
The beautiful painting of Greyfriar's Church by Michel Jean Cazabon
This historic building was demolished in November 2014
In this article, historian Angelo Bissessarsingh explores the historic significance of Greyfriars and its
founding, in an attempt to raise consciousness over what can only be described as
a severe blow to national heritage
The demolition of Greyfriars Church
Most Trinidadians today associate the Presbyterian Church with the Canadian Mission to the Indians which began in 1868 and was quickly associated with the conversion and education of thousands of indentured labourers and their descendants. There was, however, a very much older Presbyterian mission which began in the very last days of slavery and at the dawn of Emancipation with the ostensible aim of working among the many former slaves in the British colonies. Trinidad was one of the first colonies selected for this movement and the energetic Rev Alexander Kennedy and his wife were sent forth to the island.
The Reverend was born in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1804 to a farmer and was educated at Edinburgh and Glasgow. He married Mary (daughter of a merchant) and was ordained in 1835. On January 25, 1836, after an intense sea voyage of six weeks, the Kennedy family arrived in Port-of-Spain, though not without some discomfort. As recorded in Alexander’s journal: “We gladly record our gratitude to Almighty God for preserving us amidst the dangers of the deep, and upholding us amidst much personal affliction. Not many days after sailing, Mrs Kennedy was taken dangerously ill, so that for several weeks we scarcely dared to cherish the hope that she would survive so long as reach the land whither we went: but He, whose we are and whom we serve, heard our prayers, disappointed our fears, and has now restored her to almost wonted strength. It is God only that can bring back from the gates of death—that can turn the darkness of sorrow and affliction into the light of joy and health."
The arrival of the Kennedys was heralded in the Port-of-Spain Gazette with warmth and they were immediately embraced by a large and supportive cadre of people, including many Scots who were merchants, planters or planting attorneys. The first sermon was preached on February 9 in a rented house, and shortly thereafter, a search for a permanent place of worship began. Rev Kennedy hired a building that was formerly a playhouse and known as the “Old Theatre” on Cambridge (now St Vincent) Street, north of its intersection with Park Street. While the structure was being retrofitted as a church, service was held at the Hanover Methodist Church. Referring to the makeshift “church”, Rev Kennedy himself remarked: “It was not the most convenient and appropriate place that could be wished for the worship of God,” Shortly thereafter, he began searching for a site for a proper chapel. He investigated a plot of land opposite Brunswick (Woodford) Square. This land was acquired from the Cabildo (Town Council) for the princely sum of 300 pounds and on April 10, 1837, a foundation stone was laid. With Rev Kennedy’s direction and energy, a fine building with stone walls rose rapidly on the site opposite Brunswick (Woodford) Square. So rapidly did the construction take place that the tenders advertisement was soon succeeded by this proud advertisement: “NOTICE: Greyfriars Church will be opened for divine service on Sabbath the 21st current. Public worship to begin at eleven o’clock am and at four pm. A meeting of the subscribers to the Trinidad fund for the erection of a Presbyterian Church in Port-of-Spain, to be occupied by the Reverend Alex Kennedy, will be held in Greyfriars Church, on Friday the 19th current at 5 o’clock pm, when a statement of the expenditure of the funds will be read, and receipts for the amount submitted at the meeting.—Port-of-Spain, January 12, 1838.” The cost was over £4,500, which was entirely provided by subscription. In an example of true resilience and self-reliance, the congregation declined an offer of assistance from the colonial government. A short description of the original building was penned by H J Clark in 1887 as follows: “As most of you are aware, the church was originally considerably shorter than it is now; it was a plain oblong building with a low porch in front and a small vestry at the back. The seats were of the most approved Presbyterian pattern, unvarnished, straight-backed and with doors, all duly numbered in the home style of olden days.”
In 1841 a manse was erected for the accommodation of the Kennedys near the kirk at the cost of £1,000, which was raised entirely in Scotland through the diligence of the Rev Kennedy. The completion of the manse was marked by sorrow, however, since the year before, the Kennedys had returned to Scotland for a short visit, when Mrs Kennedy gave birth to a girl named Margaret Tannahill. The child died very soon after the family returned to Trinidad and was interred under a small marker in a little enclosure along the south wall of the church compound. Alongside little Margaret’s grave, another marble plaque was inserted that simply read: “Laurence—Infant son of Alex. And Jane Sprunt.” Laurence was the child of Mr Alexander Sprunt who was treasurer of Greyfriars in the time of the Rev Kennedy. The third and last burial in this cemetery of the innocents at the Kirk occurred on September 11, 1868, when George Mac Farlane Brodie, another baby boy, was laid to rest. In the details of the recent sale of Greyfriars to developer Alfred Galy, no mention has been made of these graves, so we may safely assume that if the church falls victim to a bulldozer’s blade, as many now fear, the last resting place of these three infants will suffer a similar fate.
In 2014, the 176-year-old Greyfriars Church in Port-of-Spain was demolished by the businessman who owned it.
(Article reproduced with kind permission of the late author's aunt, Patricia Bissessar)
The historic Greyfriars Church before it was demolished
Photo Credit : Iere Aerial Photography
Greyfriars, which was demolished in 2014, was home to the first Portuguese refugees who arrived in Trinidad in 1846.