It was on 29th February 1956, the Roman Catholic Church in Guyana was elevated to the degree of Diocese, naming it as the Diocese of Georgetown. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Independence of Guyana and collaterally, the Diocese of Georgetown also celebrated its 60th anniversary. It is a great moment for every Catholic in this country. The Roman Catholics truly are blessed to have such a rich and memorable history. As we celebrate the birth of the Diocese of Georgetown it is fitting that we remember the conception of the Roman Catholic Mission in British Guiana.
Before 29th February 1956, the Roman Catholic Church in Guyana was under the Apostolic Vicariate appointed by Rome; in other words, it was mission territory in the care of an Apostolic Vicariate. This simply means that the Popes used to commit to some residentiary bishops the duty of watching over ecclesiastical matters in a certain region. This arrangement was prevalent in Guyana for a long time until 1956. I would consider this as milestone in the life of the Catholic Church in Guyana.
It was in 1857, the Society of Jesus sent James Etheridge SJ to the then mission led by Bishop John Hynes. In 1858, Etheridge SJ returned to England to be consecrated Bishop by Cardinal Wiseman in the presence of Bishop Hynes on 17th October. It is here that Bishop Hynes handed over the mantle to newly consecrated Bishop Etheridge SJ. By now, Bishop Hynes and his four exhausted priests had withdrawn from Guiana and sole responsibility for the Church in Guiana rested with newly consecrated Vicar Apostolic and his small band of Jesuit companions.
One of the greatest challenges and at the same time greatest strengths of the Catholic Church has always been its desire to be authentically Catholic; creating a truly universal community united in fellowship and service yet respecting differences of culture and background. Such situation faced Bishop Etheridge because of its diverse populace, such as Indigenous Amerindians, those of African descent, East Indians, Portuguese and so on.
On 21st April 1868, and over the next six years an impressive decorated Gothic structure was built entirely of greenheart and crabwood in Brickdam to dominate the Georgetown skyline. The Archbishop of Caracas presided over the opening on 30th August 1874 at which sadly Bishop Etheridge, the man responsible for the construction was unable to attend because of illness.
One other significant group of Catholics were Arawak Amerindians in the Moruca area who were always dear to Bishop Hynes from 1840 until 1853 and who were served by a much loved and respected Irish priest, Fr John Cullen. Thereafter, a church was built in Moruca and was dedicated by Bishop Hynes on 27 October 1844 under the patroness of St Rose of Lima. Bishop James Etheridge became unwell and died whilst returning from Barbados on a steamer on 31st December 1878 and his body was committed to the deep.
Anthony Butler SJ, a former soldier with the Royal Irish Fusiliers was chosen to replace Etheridge. He was consecrated Bishop on 26th August 1878 in a packed Georgetown Cathedral and becomes the third Vicar Apostolic for British Guiana. He quickly won the respect and affection of all sections of the society, gaining a reputation as “one of the most popular men in town.” He was a tireless worker for any cause that furthered the living standards of the poor. Many families owed the ownership of their small plots of land to revisions made to the Crown Land Regulations in 1898, due in no small measure to Bishop Butler’s campaigning.
Upon the death of Bishop Butler, Compton Theodore Galton, who was the Jesuit superior of British Guiana, became the next Apostolic Vicar on 25th August 1901.
Under the shepherdship of Bishop Galton the Rupununi Mission was established but during this time a tragedy struck to the Cathedral on 7th March 1913, when careless workmen repairing the cathedral roof allowed a fire to catch hold that in a matter of hours reduced the beautiful Gothic cathedral, the presbytery and school buildings to smouldering ashes. On the Sunday after the fire a crowded meeting was held at the town hall convened by the Catholic Mayor Francis Dias, and a rebuilding committee was formed. On 15th August 1915, the foundation stone of this new building was laid by the Governor, Sir Walter Egerton and in 1925 the completed building was solemnly blessed.
On 10th April 1931, Bishop Galton died at the age of 76 having served in British Guiana for 35 years. His replacement as Apostolic Vicar took place on 15th May 1932 and George Weld was consecrated Bishop by Cardinal Bourne. He held this office for nearly 27 years retiring on 18th July 1954 at the age of 70. Thereafter, the man chosen to succeed him was Richard Lester Guilly SJ, and soon after this the Church in Guiana finally became a canonically established diocese on 29th February 1956. Bishop Guilly had the honour of becoming the first bishop of the Georgetown diocese. Pope Pius XII issued a Papal Bull to establish our Diocese of Georgetown. Thereafter, in 1966 the colony of British Guiana gained independence to become Guyana.
The Diocese of Georgetown had another milestone when Bishop Benedict Singh was consecrated on 12 August 1972, a fitting sign that the Catholic Church had been truly planted in Guyanese soil. Hence Bishop Singh, a Guyanese diocesan priest took over from Bishop Guilly as the Bishop of Georgetown. The current bishop, Francis Dean Alleyne OSB, took over from the retired bishop Singh on 30th October 2003 and was ordained Bishop on 30th January 2004 by Archbishop of Port of Spain Edward Joseph Gilbert CSSR.
Jerri Melwin Dias SJ