On April 1st, 2018, Roman Catholics in Santa Rosa and throughout the country celebrated the bicentenary of the establishment of the Catholic Church in that region. The history of the Catholic Mission to the Amerindians in Guyana actually began in Venezuela. According to ethnohistory, in April 1818, the Bolivar revolution in Venezuela against Spanish rule was taking place. There were Amerindian peoples in the Orinoco, in Venezuela, under the religious care of an order of Catholic priests who remained loyal to Spain.
This made them vulnerable to attacks from those supporting the Bolivar revolution. Indeed this is what happened. Many of the priests were killed and Amerindian villages were pillaged. Rather than remain under such conditions, the Amerindians who survived made their escape eastward into British Guiana and settled in Moruca, thus constituting for the first time a formal presence of the Catholic Church at Mariaba, an indigenous toponym which means ‘guava’ in the Arawak language. These fruits were abundant in the area during the time of the Spanish Indians’ arrival. Later Mariaba was renamed Saint Rose of Lima, patroness of Latin America. She was a consecrated indigenous mestiza of the Dominican Third Order.
After their arrival the group established themselves among the local people, who were not Christian and who inhabited the area. Juan Aguilar, also known as John, a lay person who was one of the refugees, became the first captain of Santa Rosa, teaching catechism to the people and together with the community built a chapel.
The British who ruled over this territory granted these refugees shelter and permission to stay on because they perceived them as being Christians. So, the refugees legally settled in 1822 and practised their Catholic faith in their new homeland.
In this historical context, there exists a unique aspect which needs to be highlighted, where Catholicism was not imposed on the Amerindian people during the time of the conquest in Guyana, but rather the Catholic faith was introduced to the ancestors of the early Moruca people in Venezuela by the Capuchin missionaries, and the Amerindians who escaped Venezuela brought Catholicism to Santa Rosa.
By incorporating the Catholic Church into the Morucan peoples’ cosmovision 200 years ago, it became a metaphorical maternal reference. A significant service which the church provided, just like a mother who touches all aspects of the lives of her children, was improving their spiritual and social welfare, but more especially their academic background, with the establishment of the first Catholic primary school in 1880.
The education apostolate greatly enhanced the lives of the people of Moruca and produced renowned Morucans grounded in sound moral values and Christian teaching. For example Stephen Campbell and the other earlier leaders were men and women of principle and great leadership skills.
Besides these, the Santa Rosa Community also produced outstanding persons such as government ministers, politicians, nuns and other religious persons. Also, there are at least three ordained Anglican priests who have links to Moruca and are serving their flocks in different parts of Guyana.
The Santa Rosa Catholic Church also contributed to the indigenous people of the Rupununi where they served as catechists and teachers who taught in the primary schools. Mr Stephen Campbell, Guyana’s first Amerindian Member of Parliament, was among the first pioneers who served as catechists in the village of Sawariwau in the South Rupununi among the Wapichans.
Under generous, hard-working persons like him and others who came later, along with the local indigenous teachers of the Rupununi, primary education flourished. It was an education grounded in Christian values and academics, and it produced brilliant Amerindians and prepared them for the advent of Guyana’s independence and beyond.
However, over the years the Catholic Church in Santa Rosa has itself undergone transformations from being the dominant one, to now trying to work with other Churches in the community. There are several other Christian groups that have been established and are growing in numbers in Moruca. At the same time the population has increased to approximately ten thousand, making it one of the oldest and biggest in terms of population size in the interior of Guyana.
The introduction of new ideas and experiences brought changes to the local culture and many challenges as well. In spite of this, many devoted Catholics have remained faithful to the Church while others have sought other paths, but live in understanding and harmony with each other.
Editor, given this trajectory of Catholicism and the people of Santa Rosa Moruca, I would like to congratulate them for celebrating 200 years of the Catholic faith which was held on April 1st 2018 and which is celebrated with various activities throughout this week.
The people’s presence at mass last Sunday reflected their strong faith which was well attended by the residents and others who came for the celebration. In retrospect, Catholicism in Santa Rosa, became part of the people’s heritage in Moruca. It serves for most Morucans as their second home where they get their spiritual upliftment to continue life’s challenges and successes.
In concluding, it is a joy to look back and reflect on how the Catholic Church has contributed positively to the lives of the Morucans, while also recognizing its faults. The good has overweighed the bad by far!
A happy and a blessed Bicenterary celebration of Catholicism to all at Santa Rosa!