THE wayfarer could be forgiven for being thoroughly unimpressed on the approach to Princes Town’s business district.
Considering the smell of the abandoned gas station, now a public urinal, next to the pork man’s stall, the collapsed house where the murdered man was found, and the bay rum addicts across the street, it’s not the welcome one would expect of a place with such a noble name.
But don’t be disenchanted, weary traveller, because within sight is the area where Naparima/Mayaro Road is met by Lothians Road and the place you must see.
It is the location of St Stephen’s Anglican Church, a witness to and repository of the town’s colourful history.
It is on the church compound, in 1880, that two poui trees were planted by Princes Albert and George (who would later be crowned King George V) while on their way to visit the famed Devil’s Woodyard near Indian Walk.
It only happened because of the church Rector, JG Knights, who rushed out to meet the royals and pleaded for this. To commemorate the event, the town, then with the long-winded name of The Mission of Savannah Grande (founded in 1687), was renamed Princes Town.
It is outside this church, too, that the rails of the Cipero Tramway (the first railway in Trinidad’s history, dating back to 1849) were laid down, and upon which the princes travelled from San Fernando that day (January 20) after disembarking their ship anchored off San Fernando.
It is from the pulpit of the church that Englishman Charles Kingsley (priest, professor, historian and novelist), during a visit in 1869, delivered a sermon and later recorded his experiences at the church, and of Savannah Grande and its people, in the book At Last, a Christmas in the West Indies.
And it is in the church’s graveyard that Irishman Harry Bourne Darling is entombed.
Darling (with whom Kingsley stayed while on his visit) was the manager of Lothians estate and (according to the research of historian Angelo Bissessarsingh) an unheralded humanitarian, generous and kind to the indentured workers of the time.
Darling established a school for the “coolie” children years before the Presbyterian Canadian Mission to the Indians (CMI) and was widely mourned when he died in 1897.
Much of this proud history has somehow escaped many Princes Town residents. But there are those who have noted, over the past few years, the peeling paint job on the church building, the cracked walls, the silence of the bell, the disrepair of the graveyard, and stunted growth of the pouis, now 134 years old.
However, it turns out that the church’s administration, led by Archdeacon Edwin Primus, has been working on a project that, if it all comes together, will return the site to the time when, according to 19th century writers, Princes Town was the prettiest village in Trinidad (something that will both surprise and vex residents who now think the place is scruffy and disorganised).
It took a decade of investigation, deliberation and disappointments, said Primus, but work began last week to replace the roof and reinforce the buttressed walls (of bricks made from San Fernando gravel) in a portion of the building dating back to when the church was rebuilt in 1869, and which was preserved during a reconstruction in the early 1950s.
Primus, who is overseeing the work, said of the plan: “We are using our resources and appealing to our members, area businesses and well-wishers to contribute to this restoration. This is much more than a church. This is the town’s history.”
He said the restoration work has an estimated cost of $700,000, which includes the complete gutting of the building, the replacement of rotted beams (although some of the balata wood is in perfect shape), repairing the bell tower, and slapping on a fresh coat of paint.
Building contractor Clarance Mendoza, who worked on the San Raphael and Moruga Roman Catholic churches, said his crew intends to return the church to its original condition.
Primus and church elder William Noel said the architects and engineers estimated the project to cost $2.2 million for the grander plan, which includes the restoration and replacement of the stained glass windows, the installation of a three-faced clock in the belfry, and careful treatment of the pouis.
The church also wants to make the graveyard (with the Darling tomb its centrepiece) accessible to visitors who would likely be surprised by the number of Anglican Chinese buried there, in tombs dating back more than 100 years.
By then, a committee set up to research the history of St Stephen’s Anglican Church should have a booklet to share with visitors.
For this to happen, said Primus, it will require State assistance, and an approach has been made to the British High Commission, Princes Town Regional Corporation, and the Tourism and Local Government ministries.
Primus, parish priest at the church for 20 years, wants it to be declared a historical site.
“People come here every day to find out about the pouis. It is where we come to worship and remember at the annual Princes Town Day every January,” and where pupils of St Stephen’s College, located on the other side of the town, make an annual pilgrimage to pray.
But Primus also noted something important about the church location that every Princes Town resident knows to be true.
“This is the town’s beacon, a reference point if you want to find somewhere, the address where people give as a place to meet. We want to put Princes Town back on the map again, and this church as its centre point.”
NOTE: If you want to read more about the history of the church, and the life and times of Harry Darling, go to Bissessarsingh’s Facebook page VirtualMuseum Oftrinidadandtobago. Bissessarsingh will shortly be publishing a book titled Walking with the Ancestors—The Historic Cemeteries of Trinidad.
The Anglican Church is hoping to complete restoration work on the church by Easter. The work is part of a larger “physical and spiritual” reconstruction drive, said Primus, which has seen the repair of the St Gregory Anglican Church at Fifth Company, the construction of the Ascension Church at Eccles Village, the complete rebuilding of the St Clements Church, which is nearing completion. The St Stephen’s Anglican Church was founded in 1825. If you want to help with the restoration effort, the church can be contacted at 655-2480.