Jan between the bell tower and chapel at Mr. Alvernia, Cat Island
Those who have traveled beyond Nassau and George Town, Bahamas quickly learn of Father Jerome and his churches. Most hear about his two masterpieces at Clarence Town, Long Island—one Anglican and one Catholic-- and his own personal, hand built hermitage at New Bight, Cat Island which he called Mr. Alvernia. As a busy architect and priest he also built a number of other churches and religious structures on Long Island, Cat Island, San Salvador, and New Providence.
The cruising guides give only brief summaries of Father Jerome's life. These raise more questions than they answer. Why did he convert from being an Anglican priest to Roman Catholicism and then take Holy Orders in the Catholic church? Why did he go to Western Australia? Was he a “bush priest” as Wilson writes in the Waterways Guide to the Bahamas or was he a renowned and prolific church architect as the internet suggests? (Remarkably he was both during his 24 years in Australia.) Why did he come back to the Bahamas? And why did he want to become a hermit on Cat Island?
During our several voyages aboard the White Pepper through the out island Jan and I were able to see the three most famous of Father Jerome's efforts. Each is so amazing, yet so different, that I wanted to know more about how they came to be. All research begins on the internet nowadays, so let me say the the Wikipedia entry for Father Jerome is just awful. Father Jerome's given name was John Cyril Hawes. He was born in 1876 in Richmond, Surrey which is now part of London, England. Google this name and most of the entries will be about his architectural contributions to Australia. Then finally I found his biography, The Hermit of Cat Island, by Peter Anson. The biography was authorized by Father Jerome with the condition that it not be published until after his death. Mr. Anson never met John Hawes but was given all of his letters. Mr. Anson gave much of his attention to Father Jerome's spiritual life. While this approach may bore some readers today, it was exact what I was interested in. I wished to know why he did his remarkable feats.
The young John Hawes was interested in mystical matters from an early age. He was entranced with the incense and mysteries of the Catholic Church: however, his parents were strict and pious Anglicans. To please his parents he satisfied himself with Anglo-Catholicism which is a now extinct variety of the Anglican Church that longed for reunion with the Roman Church. He also entered architectural studies in London and trained under excellent architects.
John Hawes had always wanted to be a priest and when he turned 21 entered seminary. After becoming a priest he flirted with monastic life and was especially drawn to the example of St. Francis of Assisi. Eventually, he answered another part of his calling which was to be a missionary. In 1908 the Bahamas were devasted by a large hurricaine. His bishop asked him to go there and help.
He was posted to Long Island to minister to the population which was about evenly mixed black and white but all Anglican. He used his architectural skills to repair buildings. His first effort was to rebuilt a church in Deadman's Cay. It had an stone arch which amazed the local “masons” that helped him. His second effort at rebuilding was St. Paul's in Clarence Town. Here one can see the young student architect with his T-square and ruler. The church is remarkable for its precision and proportion. The corners are perfect and nothing is wasted. Every square inch is dedicated to performing the worship service. Also at this site we can see in Father John Hawes a characteristic that was life long—his eye for the spectacular. The church overlooks the harbor of Clarence Town from a modest elevation with the Atlantic sparkling in the distance. The cemetery surrounds the church. One almost envies the dead with their eternal view of such a sight. More than 30 years later while he was at Cat Island during WWII, John, now Father Jerome. met Edward, Prince of Wales and Governor of the Bahamas. The two men strolled along the beach discussing dogs, horses and architecture. Edward mentioned St. Paul's on Long Island which he called the “the pearl of the Bahamas.” Father Jerome was able to casually say that “oh, yes, he had built that church.”
The sacristy at St. Paul's, a model of precision
A view for eternity
St. Paul's, Clarence Town. If you click on the image you can see the towers of St. Peter and Pauls's in the middle right part of the image.
After this effort in Clarence Town it was at Simms, a fishing village on the banks side of Long Island, that Reverend Hawes came to a critical moment in his life. The local parishioners made it clear that they were perfectly happy with him, but they were not going to have anything to do with incense, chanting, confession, images or any other Roman affectations. And they were not too pleased with the Virgin Mary. They wanted good old fashioned Protestant Anglicanism. Soon afterwards John Hawes resolved to follow his heart and convert to Catholicism.
John Hawes left the Bahamas. He spent several years tramping about in North America, mostly in western Canada, working as a laborer on the railroads and lumber camps. He went to Rome to take Holy Orders at Beda, met Pope Pius X, and eventually was sent to the parish of Geraldton in Western Australia. He was called to be a missionary priest to the far flung immigrants and aborigines of that wide open land. As his skill as an architect became recognized he became more and more involved in building. He was named monsignor, given Papal honors and awarded a gorgeous purple robe. Although very successful and acclaimed, he felt unfulfilled. The boyhood infatuation with St. Francis with its ideals of poverty and mortification as a path to holiness had never left John Hawes. He was more often referring to himself as Jerome. Also his heart was failing him. He requested and was quickly granted permission for an extended sabbatical. He superiors thought that he would eventually return to Australia, but Jerome knew he was never coming back.
Landing in the Bahamas in 1940 Father Jerome dismissed the offers of comfortable positions in Nassau. His heart was set on a hermetical life on one of the out islands. He set out on a survey and with his eye for the spectacular found Comer Hill on Cat Island. Eventually, he purchased the land from a local shop keeper for 35 pounds and renamed in Mt. Alvernia. This is the highest spot of land in the Bahamas at 206 feet. Jan and I visited in 2011. The view is phenomenal. There is deep blue of the Atlantic to the east, the turquoise of the banks to the west, rolling green north and south, a fresh water lake in the distance and puffy white clouds rolling overhead in the blue vault of heaven. And that is just the daytime.
View of the banks
His clock and a view of the Atlantic
Father Jerome immediately set out building his own personal hermitage out of local materials. He did have some paid help from the locals, but most of the material he hauled up the hill with the aid of a donkey. He slept on the beach or in his skiff, Roma, until he discovered a comfortable cave nearby that was his home for a year.
The entrance to Father Jerome's temporary home.
The interior was rather larger than the entrance
The hermitage was meant to reflect an austere Franciscan way of life. How very different it is from St. Paul's. Rather than precise and clean, the hermitage seems to organically grow out of the rock. Passage ways are rough and rude. The walls are deliberately unfinished which caused Jerome considerable grief due to moisture and insects. His bed is carved out of rock and was only occasionally covered with bedding. Father Jerome would arise every night at midnight to say 90 minutes or more of prayers in a tiny one person chapel that is no larger than a modern walk in closet. Eventually guest rooms were added in a fashion that feels like a miniature monastery. The last structure he added was the bell tower which is about 15 feet tall. Because all of the proportions are so harmonious the structure appears huge from the beach of New Bight. After the climb every visitor is surprised at how small the actual buildings are. Finally, I have to mention the Stations of the Cross and Father Jerome's crypt. The twelve stations are carved out of rock and line the steep rocky path leading up the hermitage Father Jerome prayed the Stations of the Cross every day that he was at the hermitage usually about 1 am. He was buried there in 1956 without a coffin in a the crypt he had prepared in a small cave just below the main chapel. During his life he would occasionally sleep in the crypt although he did admit this act took considerable will power.
From a distance the size is deceiving. It appears much larger than it actually is.
Father Jerome's bed of rock
The first Station of the Cross
A monastery in miniature
The way of the Stations of the Cross. Quite a hill to climb.
After he moved into the hermitage he began to practice the Franciscan lifestyle and gave away all of his modest wealth. He practiced missionary work among the people of Cat Island gathering several dozen often wanton parishioners. He built a total of 5 churches on Cat Island and one on neighboring San Salvador. He received numerous architectural commission from all over the world including several in Australia and one in Connecticut. He was involved in a large project on New Providence that became St. Augustine's.
In 1946 he was called to build another church in Clarence Town, Long Island—St Peter and Paul's. Mr. Anson has little to say about the building of this church spending most of his efforts on Father Jerome's spiritual development at this time. I wanted to known more about the circumstances of the design since I believe St Peter and Paul's is Father Jerome's crowning achievement. He seemed to have been more of a consultant than his usual hands on builder. You can barely see St Paul's from St. Peter and Paul's. The site is not as spectacular St Peter and Paul's. However, the design is stunning. The thick alabaster white walls seem to grow out of the Bahamian rock. Sturdy buttresses do not seem necessary, but stand more as guards to the wall announcing that this church will stand forever. The interior is almost the same size as St. Paul's. In contrast with brightly lite and efficient interior of St. Paul's, the chapel of St. Peter and Paul's is brooding and close. This place was meant for prolonged prayer and penitence, not a quick 50 minute service. However, the lasting impression of St. Peter and Paul's are the towers. Father Jerome mentioned that he had wanted to reference lighthouses. But these are not lighthouses. When I see those towers I see two arms lifted up in prayer into the deep blue Bahamian sky The effect is stunning and lasting. At least it was on us.
A dedication to Father Jerome
The rood (crucifex) and sacristy at St. Peter and Paul's. Father Jerome likely carved the rood.
Pews and Narthex. Not like St. Paul's
View from steps of St. Peter and Paul's
Father Jerome lived longer than he probably wanted to and almost certainly longer than he expected. He became increasingly frail. He became so weak that he could no longer climb to and from his hermitage He would sleep through his self appointed nightly Offices. He became so exasperated that he declared his beloved home 'a prison'. He finally accepted the Bishop's offer to live in his house in Nassau. There he fell and broke his femur. He was flown to Miami for surgery. The surgery was delayed for a week trying to address his weakness and malnutrition. Eventually, the surgery was done and seemed to be a success. Three days later he took a turn for the worse and became short of breath. Mr. Anson does not give a cause of death, but modern medicine (my profession) would suggest a pulmonary embolism as a complication of orthopedic surgery.
After a funeral mass in Nassau he was buried in his crypt on Cat Island without a coffin and with his arms out stretched in the shape of a cross as per his wishes. He willed the hermitage to the diocese of the Bahamas. In his will he declared that he had no other worldly possession to give away and that he died a poor man—just as his hero, St. Francis.
Father Jerome's crypt