The Via Dolorosa of Father Jerome
We are travelers. Driven by a need like an unquenchable thirst to find out what lies beyond the horizon, we don’t spend much time in one place: we sail farther. Yet, sometimes we pause. Sometimes we climb a ridge and look from the top of a mountain to see where we have come from and where we are going.
The distance between Little San Salvador and Cat Island is 34 nautical miles. We sail all day. It’s dark when we drop anchor on the west side of the island.
The next day we take to the hills. As we climb the 206-foot Mount Alvernia on Cat Island, the highest land elevation in the Bahamas, I tell this story to my children:
Once upon a time there was an old hermit, a most unusual man, who lived alone in a stone home he built atop a hill. You might imagine that he was a very small man, maybe a midget, for his house, which still crowns the hill, is so tiny. Everything in it: his sleeping quarters furnished with nothing but a simple bed, the cloister with only three miniature columns leading to a guestroom where no more than one or two guests could fit, the little bell tower, and the chapel with its single pew where one must bend in order to fit through the door, resemble a child-size castle on top of a tiny mountain. But you know what? The resident of this place was in fact a very tall person, slender, with white beard and sad eyes. Why do you suppose he built for himself such a small dwelling?
It is a short but steep trek to the peak of Mount Alvernia. Visitors from all over the world come here to climb the Everest of the Bahamas, and as a pilgrimage to Father Jerome’s Hermitage which he designed and built singlehandedly on top of the hill.
Born John Cyril Hawes in 1876 in England, he studied architecture and theology. At age 21 he was already a practicing building designer. At age 27 he became a priest. In 1909 John Hawes joined a mission in the Bahamas to restore churches damaged by a great hurricane. After that, the architect-priest left the Bahamas and didn’t return until 1939. He came back to Cat Island to spend the last 17 years of his life in solitude, as a poor old man dedicated to seeking God through prayer, charity, and seclusion from society. Everyone called him Father Jerome.
We reach the summit. The view from the top is spectacular. We see the entire Cat Island below: a scrubby mass of tropical vegetation, small colorful houses strewn along the west coast. And beyond, the placid emerald-green waters of the Caribbean sea to the west and the roaring Atlantic to the east stretching all the way to Africa. Up here the wind carries the muffled prayers of an old hermit. Up here, inside the one-man monastery we, atheists, feel the presence of father Jerome: a sudden nostalgic sensation of profound spirituality and awe.
The grey stone walls constructed over the hill in perfect harmony with the natural surroundings, and the white cupolas bright against the blue sky are perfect as a renaissance painting. Except for the cone-shaped dome of the belltower which is broken and crooked.
“What happened?” I ask a man mixing cement on the grass in front of the hermitage. Another man is working up on the belltower.
“There is a metal bell inside, so a lightning come and BAM, strike it! About a month ago. Worst damage ever since the hermitage was built”, he explains.
Cedric Wilson, a building contractor, and Kirk Burrows, both Cat Islanders, are commissioned to repair the damaged belltower. We offer to help and they gladly accept.
We begin working the next day.
Every morning for a week we go to the foot of Mount Alvernia where we find construction materials waiting for us to be hauled up. As we walk the steep rocky path carrying buckets of sand and wooden planks I am thinking of Father Jerome walking the same path, building the hermitage stone by stone.
There, along the shadowy path to the top of the hill, he has placed concrete bas-reliefs imaging Jesus carrying his cross on the way to his crucifixion along the Via Dolorosa: the Way of Suffering. The analogy is inevitable: Jesus struggling with the cross, Father Jerome building the hermitage, Cedric and Kirk fixing it, and now us too being part of it.
At the end, I am grateful that through our efforts to help repair the belltower we became forever connected to Father Jerome and his Hermitage, to the past and the present of Mount Alvernia, to the people of Cat Island, and to the history of the Bahamas.
About the Author: Mira Nencheva is a writer, photographer, and a nomad with Bulgarian origins. With her husband and two children she is on a journey around the globe aboard the 38 feet catamaran Fata Morgana, exploring natural and cultural sites of interest, living off grid, volunteering, and making art for social change. Follow their journey on Facebook.
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