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St. Francis Xavier Cathedral!

Is the oldest Roman Catholic Church in the Commonwealth of The Bahamas.
The cornerstone of St. Francis Xavier Cathedral on West & West Hill Streets in Nassau, was laid in 1885 under the supervision of the resident priest, Father John O'Keefe. The church was consecrated by the Archbishop of New York Michael A. Corrigan in 1887. 

St. Francis Xavier, the saint in whose honor the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Bahamas is named, and the co-patron saint of the Archdiocese of Nassau, is considered among the greatest missionaries since the apostles. Known as the Apostle to the Far East, Xavier was born to an aristocratic family in the Basque region of Spain in April 1506. He died on the Island of Sancian near the coast of China in December 1552, before having reached the age of 47. 

St. Francis Xavier - the greatest missionaries since the apostles.

St. Francis Xavier, the saint in whose honor the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Bahamas is named, and the co-patron saint of the Archdiocese of Nassau, is considered among the greatest missionaries since the apostles.

Known as the Apostle to the Far East, Xavier was born to an aristocratic family in the Basque region of Spain in April 1506. He died on the Island of Sancian near the coast of China in December 1552, before having reached the age of 47.

After completing studies in Spain at age 19, Xavier was sent to study at the University of Paris. He read philosophy and theology for a career as a professor. He met Ignatius Loyola in Paris and they developed a warm friendship. In 1534 he joined Layola and five of others in the formation of the Society of Jesus.

Xavier left Paris in 1536 to join Layola in Venice, Italy, from where it was intended that they would go to Palestine as missionaries. That trip never materialized. In Venice, Xavier engaged in charitable work among the sick. He was ordained in 1537 and in the next year went to Rome where he participated in the conference which led to the formal recognition of the Society of Jesus by the Pope

In 1542 he was sent to the Far East becoming the first Jesuit missionary. His mission was to strengthen and deepen Christian faith among nascent Christian communities in the Portuguese colonies. He began his ministry in Goa, India where he also established new Christian missions.

Leaving the subcontinent, Xavier traveled extensively in the Far East often under the most deplorable conditions, including extremes of heat and cold, and frequently on his bare feet. His ministry extended to the Island of Ceylon and to other Portuguese colonies in the East indies.

His work, proselytizing native populations opened his ayes to colonial abuses. In letters to his financial patron, King John of Portugal, he protested against the mistreatment of the natives by Portuguese settlers, and admonished against Portugal's part in the slave trade and in the plunder of colonies for their riches.

Conquering the Japanese language, he introduced Christianity to Japan, and not withstanding considerable opposition to his preaching by some of the Japanese leadership, he established a number of Christian communities which grew and survive to this day. His plan to extend his missionary work to mainland China was stopped by his illness and subsequent death on the Island of Sancian, near the coast of China.

Called healer, prophet and miracle worker, Francis Xavier is credited with teaching Catholic catechism to tens of thousands of people, particularly to the young; with deepening and strengthening the understanding of the faith among Christian communities throughout the Far East; and with bringing thousands of people to Christianity in India, Ceylen, the East Indies and Japan, Francis Xavier was beatified in October 1619, canonized in March 1622 and proclaimed patron of all foreign missions on December 3rd of the same year. He his interred in the Basilica Bom Jesus in Goa, India.

St. Francis Xavier Cathedral

As in The Bahamas, St. Francis Xavier serves today as patron to Roman Catholic missions, parish churches, and the dioceses on every continent around the world.

The archipelago comprising The Bahamas includes seventeen sizable islands and hundreds of smaller ones, cays and rocks. They stretch south-eastwardly from within fifty miles of the east coast of Florida, U.S.A., to a similar distance from the eastern end of Cuba.

The total land surface is only 4,400 square miles, but the islands are spread over a vast area on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. From northwest to south-east, this chain of islands run six hundred miles. 

The following outline presents highlights of the growth and development of St. Francis Xavier Church, from the nineteenth century American Catholic Mission in a small British Colony to today's twenty-first  century Catholic Cathedral in The Commonwealth of The Bahamas. 

 In July 1885, Lady Georgiana and her husband, Surgeon-Major F. G. Ayde-Curran, visited Archbishop Michael A. Corrigan of New York. The reason for their visit was to beg him to send a priest to reside in Nassau, Bahamas. Between 60 and 80 Catholics residing there - British, Irish, Spanish, Cubans, Haitians and other foreign workers, merchants, diplomats, soldiers - had no priestly help for many months on end.

Fr. Charles G. O'Keefe of the Archdiocese of New York, accompanied the Ayde - Currans back to Nassau. Meanwhile, the Congregation of the Propagation of the faith in Rome was preparing to transfer responsibility for evangelizing the inhabitants of the Bahamas Islands from the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolin, to the Archdiocese of New York, U.S.A.

July 28, 1885 New York Archdiocese formally accepted responsibility for evangelization of residents in the Bahamas Island.

In August 1885, was established the first Catholic Parish in The Bahamas by Father Charles G. O'keefe of New York. The world famous missionary, St. Francis Xavier, was selected as its patron.

Father O'Keefe appointed a building committee, and within a few days, construction of a church to seat about 100 persons was stated. One of the building committee members, Samuel Theus Smith, was the maternal grandfather of Peter Bowe, father of Mrs. Ruth Bowe-Darville, currently a member of this Cathedral Parish.

Lady Georgiana Ayde-Curran who strove incessantly for a resident priest and an established Catholic church in Nassau, laid the cornerstone for St. Francis Xavier Church on a small lot on West St. hilltop, which overlooks the Western entrance to Nassau Harbour.

Nov. 7 of 1886, The first Mass for the parish, in the newly completed little church, was offered by Father A.J. Ryan of the Archdiocese of New York.

Feb. 13, 1887, Most Rev. Michael A. Corrigan, Archbishop of New York, dedicated little St. Francis Xavier Church.  

A request from Archbishop Corrigan 

Oct. 28, 1889 In response to a request from Archbishop Corrigan, nine Sisters of Charity from Mount St. Vincent-on-the-Hudson, New York, and three lay women arrived in Nassau. The lay women remained for several months helping the Sisters, while Reverend Mother Ambrosio and the other three officials of New York Community returned home after a week or so. 

The five - Sisters Dolores Van Rensselaer (the Superior), Mercedez Donovan, Maria Corsini Gallagher, Teresa Alacoque Nagle and Casilda Saunders - remained for a number of years serving the new mission as teachers, and social workers. They were the first in a continuous, widening line of devoted teachers, nurses and social workers who consecrated themselves to Christ, freely served The Bahamas from then until now.

The contributions of the Sisters of Charity in this archipelago were appropriate, timely and needed. Their willingness to remain, was an important factor that pushed the Archbishop of New York to find priests to reside in Nassau.

In Nov. 4, 1889 - The Sisters of Charity opened the first of many Catholic Free Elementary Schools, St. Francis in an old rented building on the grounds south of the Church.

In a section of their small, rented residence north of the Church, they began St. Francis Xavier Academy, a fee-paying institution.

Feb. 2, 1891 - Father Chrysoston Schreiner, OSB of St. John's Abbey, Minnesota, arrived in Nassau from New York City. This former Vice President of St. John's University agreed to assist the Archbishop of New York, by residing and working the Mission Church in The Bahamas. The Archbishop appointed him Vicar Forane in The Bahamas and Pastor of St. Francis.

April 10, 1893 - The Archdiocese of New York bougth the property, approximately 1.2 acres south of the Church, that was being rented by the Sisters for the Parish School. This purchase extended the church property to Delancy Street.

In the late summer 1893, Fr. Chrysostom moved into Dunmare house which he re-named "The Priory." This former Colonial Governor's residence and later, military hospital for the British West Indies Regiment in Nassau, was on land adjoining the northern boundary of the hill-top lot on which St. Francis Church was built. The Priory became the headquarters for all Benedictine Monks working in The Bahamas and also St. Francis Church Rectory.

(By the 1980's, the Priory had not been occupied for years. The local Benedictine Monks were residing at St. Augustine's Monastery in Fox Hill. Each Parish had its rectory and the Bishop of the Diocese resided on the Eastern Road. The building was in an advanced state of disrepair so it was demolished.)

While the Sisters continued to teach the increasing number of children in the Parish Free School, they and Fr. Chrysostom were also instructing some children and local adults to be received into the church.

By the year 1894, Fr. Chrysostom had performed 38 baptisms; the parish school had enrolled 126 boys and 154 girls. 

The First Catholic Bazaar

Dec. 22, 1897 - The first Catholic Bazaar was held for two afternoons in the school-yard and the proceeds amounted to fifty-four pounds- a handsome sum of money. During the next seventy-five years, at least, the Annual Catholic Bazaar was an important means of fund-raising for the "Sisters"School" also called "Catholic Free Schools" until the late 1950's.

Feb. 10, 1899 - Eighteen new Catholics received the Sacrament of Confirmation under the new gas lights in St. Francis Church.

March 1899 - Fr. Joseph Flynn, a visitor from New Jersey, planted "ishia" fig trees in the church yard.

Father Chrysostom doubled the seating capacity of St. Francis Church by adding the transepts, one on each side of the sanctuary. The transept on the west is currently the sacristy and the one on the east  side is now the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.

Dec. 5, 1910 - Father Chrysostom completed Bungalow Dunmore, the first concrete building in Nassau. He located it just west the Priory. Currently, it is the Cathedral Parish Rectory.

Until 1960, at least, the bungalow was the winter residence of the Archbishop of New York and guest-house for episcopal and priestly visitors who came to the Mission every year. The dining/living-room of this historic building displays interesting, stylized artwork. A frieze, or decorative band of sculpture, links the indigenous people (Arawaks), flora, fauna and Columbus with the Benedictine Missionaries in the Bahamas. The artist-professor was a friend of Fr. Chrysostom.

Dec 24, 1918 - Father Chrysostom dedicated the western transept (the current sacristy) as a Memorial Chapel to Our Lady of Victory and installed a plaque in memory of the World War dead.

Jan 1926 - St. Francis Parish 5th Bahamas Boy Scout Troop was enrolled.

Feb 1926 - St. Francis had its first Annual Lenten Missions Services, preached by two priests from the Archdiocese of New York.

May 1927 - The Madonna Day Nursey for pre-school children was opened in a new building financed by Alumnae of Mt. St. Vincent Academy in New York. This building in the south-eastern corner  of the churchyard at West Street and Delancy Street, is called the Parish Centre today.

Over the years, the building has housed pre-natal and general medical clinics, the parish offices and catechetical classes, also. These and other pre-natal and medical Catholic Church clinics serving anyone who came  - Catholics and non-Catholics alike existed. There was only The Bahamas General Hospital, now called Princess Margaret Hospital.

Feb 7, 1932 - St. Francis Xavier Church was designated the pro-cathedral of the Prefecture by Father Bernard Kevenhoester, OSB, the first Prefect Apostolic of the Bahamas.

Father Bernard then installed Fr. Othmar Hohmann, OSB, as pastor of St. Francis Church. Fr. Othmar, a talented, friendly, dramatist, zealously continued the work of this predecessors: promoting enthusiastic congregational vocal praying; singing during liturgical services; giving catechetical instructions during evening services.

His devout ministry to children and the sick was extraordinary and effective. The number of participating parishioners tripled and the school population doubled.

Dec 21, 1933 - Father Bernard was consecrated Bishop of Camuliana in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.

Feb, 1934 - Newly consecrated Bishop Bernard Kevenhoester, OSB, installed as Vicar Apostolic of The Bahamas.

August, 1934 - Construction of the southern extension and two towers of St. Francis Xavier Church, commenced during the previous year, was well advanced. It was completed by the end of 1934. This new space doubled the number of seats of the church to accommodate the many new converts.

Also during 1934, the generosity of Patrick Cardinal Hayes, enabled the Church to build St. Benedict's Hall, thus providing twice as much more classroom space for St. Francis School. Enrollments of non Catholic students, especially, continued to climb.

On the Summer of 1951 - Sisters and other teachers welcomed the much needed classroom space. The Bishop Memorial Building, providing eight new classrooms and administrative areas for St. Francis Parish School, was completed. After Bishop Bernard's death on December 9, 1949, Fr. Bonaventure Hansen, acting head of the Vicariate, used the donations given in the deceased's memory to finance this building.  

The Monks who served St. Francis Church

1932 to 1960 - This period during and after Fr. Othmar Hohmann's pastorate in the life of St. Francis Parish was one of continued, tremendous growth and development, even as it was for the entire Bahamas Mission. The young Benedictine Missionaries who arrived, almost like a steady flowing down from Minnesota, did not only "stand tall" on the proverbial shoulders of their zealous precessors.

True to their motto, "Ora et Labora (prayer and work)," they, too lived to the fullest, the Gospel of Christ Jesus. Each one shared his peculiar gifts and talents with the local people.

In matters relative to the Parish Sunday and Elementary Schools, they worked closely with the Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of St. Martin de Porres Convent. Besides teaching and social work among the poor, the Sisters ensured that the sacred vessels, altar linens, vestments and sanctuary were always sparkling clean and in good condition.

Some of the other monks who served St. Francis Church during this period and whose names became associated with activities besides their priestly responsibilities were:

  • Fr. Ambrose Wittman - Choral Groups giving concepts of classical music, drama and Orchestra;
  • Fr. Quentin Dittberner - Marching Band;
  • Fr. Cornelius Osendort - Building Construction; medical and dental services, Home Visits and Sports;
  • Fr. Frederic Frey - Youth Development, Education, Sports, Adult Instruction, Building Construction, Home Visits;
  • Fr. Marcian Peter - Youth Development (eg. revitalization of Boys Scouts), Sports, Drama, Horticulture, Building Construction, Home Visits;
  • Fr. Brendan Forsyth - Male Choir, Liturgical Music, Home Visits, Mentoring Boys and Men's Groups (e.g. Holy name Society; many Altar Servers including males representative of the various races in the Parish, ranging in age from Senior Citizens to First Graders). Building Construction;
  • Fr. George Wolf - Home Visits, Building Construction and Youth Development;
  • Fr. Silvan Bromenshenkel - Home Visits, Adult Instruction, Mentoring Youth.

It was Fr. Frederic who was responsible for the construction of the basketball court while he was pastor at St. Francis Church (1940 - 1945).

For many years afterward, this was one of only a few basketball courts on this Island. The Church graciously permitted the Government High School (then on Nassau Court downtown) to use it for several hours, two afternoons a week during the school year for many years. It was a popular recreational place. The electric lights enabled numerous Priory Basketball Series to be played and enjoyed by many thousands of young persons after nightfall, from then until now.

In addition to daily Mass, parish devotions included Benedictions of the Most Blessed Sacraments each Sunday afternoon for those who attended Sunday School, and again, later Sunday evening after Complin and Instruction; a Holy Hour with Exposition each Thursday evening; Stations of the Cross on Friday evenings during Lent, and Saturday evening Rosary after Confessions.

By 1960 when the oldest Catholic Mission Church in The Bahamas was formally established as St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, at least ten young parishioners were priests or religious. In various capacities, most of them ministered devotedly for periods from five to twenty years.

Still serving in the priesthood and religious life today are Msgr. Preston A. Moss, Vicar General of the Archdiocese and Pastor of St. Anselm's Church in Fox Hill, and Sister Annie Thompson, OSB, Immediate Past Prioress of St. Martin Monastery on Nassau Street and Administrator of the Nazareth Home for Abused Children, Off Bethel Avenue in Stapledon Gardens, New Providence.

The total number of Catholics in The Bahamas was 20,000, approximately 19% of the entire population in the Colony.

Pope John XXIII agreed with his advisors that there were sufficient strong signs and potential for continued progress and further development of the Church in The Bahamas.

Not surprisingly, therefore, on July 5, 1960 the Holy See designated the Vicariate Apostolic of The Bahamas as the Diocese of Nassau. The Vicar Apostolic of The Bahamas, the Most Rev. Paul Leonard Hagarty, OSB, became the first Bishop of Nassau and his pro-Cathedral, St. Francis Xavier on West Street hilltop, the Cathedral of the Diocese of Nassau.