Just over 161 years ago in March 1857, Fathers James Etheridge, Aloysius Emiliani and Clement Negri arrived in Georgetown in what was then British Guiana to establish a Jesuit mission there. Individual Jesuits, most notably Fr Leonard Neale and Fr James Chamberlain, had attempted missionary work in the territory in the late eighteenth century, however as the Society was under suppression these individual endeavours did not lead to the establishment of a Jesuit mission.
The first Vicar-Apostolic of British Guiana, Bishop William Clancy, had been appointed in 1837. Clancy was succeeded by Bishop John Thomas Hynes, a Dominican, who served until 1857. After prolonged negotiations, the English Province of the Society of Jesus accepted responsibility for the mission in Guyana and James Etheridge SJ (1808-1877) was chosen to succeed Hynes. Etheridge had formerly been Rector of the Norwich Mission, Rector of St Beuno’s and Rector of St Aloysius in Preston. Fathers Emiliani and Negri were Italian Jesuits from the provinces of Rome and Naples respectively. Six more Jesuits from the English, Italian and Maltese Provinces arrived in November 1857 to begin work in earnest.
A diary of James Etheridge is held in the Archives of the Jesuits in Britain (our ref: SJ/48/1). The first entry gives a succinct summary of the start of a formal Jesuit presence in Guyana:
March 1857 Frs James Etheridge Sup[erior] Clemens Negri & Aloysius Emiliani left Southampton for Demerara March 2 nd . Arrived March 24 th immediately installed by Bishop Hynes at Cathedral with 2 Secular Priests Hayden & O’Higgins. The Super[ior] appointed Vicar Gen[era]l …
The diary largely records Etheridge’s movements as well as giving an account of other comings and goings in the mission. In 1858 Etheridge returned to London to be consecrated bishop. The ceremony was conducted by Cardinal Wiseman at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Farm Street. In addition to his responsibilities in Guyana and Barbados, Bishop Etheridge was also given administrative responsibility in the diocese of Port-of-Spain and Haiti. Much of his time was occupied in travelling in and around the Caribbean.
The image below shows a typical page from Etheridge’s diary. It is not known at what point the diary was transferred to the Province Archives in London however the paper is extremely brittle and there is iron gall ink corrosion throughout, conditions likely to have been caused, or at the very least exacerbated, by the hot and humid conditions prevalent in Guyana.
Under Etheridge's leadership, new churches were opened at Main Street in Georgetown (the Sacred Heart) and along the coast at Hague, Victoria, Henrietta, Buxton, Beterverwagting, Meadow Bank and Leguan. A Catholic grammar school, later to be known as St Stanislaus College, was opened in 1866 in Georgetown. Etheridge also oversaw the building of the first cathedral in Georgetown. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception formally opened in 1874, although unfortunately he was too ill to be present for the occasion. The original wooden cathedral was destroyed by a fire in 1913 and was subsequently rebuilt in the 1920s.
Away from Georgetown the Jesuits established or revived mission stations in the interior towards the border with Brazil and in the north west towards the border with Venezuela. The Santa Rosa mission in Moruca was founded in or around 1836 by an Irish priest. After a period of neglect the mission was revived by Fr Frederick de Betham SJ and Fr Marco Mesini SJ. In 1896 the Jesuits began working in the North West district and opened a church at Morawhanna. The Takutu mission in the Rupununi was established in 1909 under Fr Cuthbert Cary-Elwes. More recently, a mission was established at Sand Creek in the South Rupununi in 1949 and at Kurukabaru in the Pakairama Mountains in 1956.
Bishop Etheridge had suffered poor health for many years and, despite a recuperative break in Jamaica in 1874, he was unable to maintain his previously gruelling schedule of almost constant travelling. In late December 1877 Etheridge visited Barbados. He died on 31 December 1877 on board RMS Eider making the return journey to Guyana and was buried at sea. He was succeeded as Vicar-Apostolic of Guiana by Bishop Anthony Butler SJ.
The work of the Jesuits in Guyana in the twenty-first century continues in parishes and missions in Georgetown, Plaisance, Port Mourant, Hosororo, Lethem, Kurukabaru and Aishalton. The Guyana region is shortly to leave the British Province to join a Caribbean regional province. Further information on the history of the Jesuits in the region can be found on the website of the Jesuits in Guyana. Material relating to Guyana and some of the Jesuits who served there since 1857, including Bishop Etheridge, Fr Cary-Elwes and others, has recently been catalogued and is available for consultation at the Jesuits in Britain Archives. Please do contact us for further information.