From the Archives: Rupununi Mission, Guyana

POST BY MAllen

Fr Cary-Elwes SJ (1867-1945) started the Rupununi Mission with Bishop Galton in 1909

This year marks the 110th anniversary of the beginning of the Rupununi Mission in what was then British Guiana by Fr Cuthbert Cary-Elwes SJ. In January 1969, in the Diamond Jubilee year of the foundation of the Mission, political events lead to unrest that would affect the English Jesuits that were still living and working there. Using sources in the Jesuits in Britain Archives, we take a look at the events of 50 and 110 years ago.

The story of the Jesuits in Guyana began in 1857 when Fr James Etheridge SJ was appointed Superior of the Guyana Mission, which had been entrusted to the English Jesuits by Pope Pius IX. Under his direction, Catholic life was greatly restored and he left the Vicariate on a firm footing on his death in 1877: the number of churches had been doubled, priests had visited previously deserted missions, confirmation was regularly administered, and Etheridge (who had become Bishop) toured his Vicariate tirelessly. Etheridge was replaced by Fr Anthony Butler SJ as Bishop, who continued to increase the Catholic presence in the region, until his death in 1901 when he was replaced by Fr Compton Galton SJ. It was under Bishop Galton that the Rupununi Mission to the Amerindians of the Interior was founded with Fr Cary-Elwes at its head in 1909.

Map of British Guiana, as it was known then, accompanying Fr Cary-Elwes’ account of the Takutu Mission in November 1911 in Letters and Notices

Headquarters of the Mission were set up at St Ignatius, and from there Carey-Elwes ventured to the north and south, laying the foundations of a mission which by the mid 20th century spread in an arc of over 200 miles. For thirteen years he journeyed, baptised and did heavy manual work in the building of mission houses and churches. His mission field extended from the River Ireng among the Patamonia Indians to the River Rupununi among the Wapishanas, which he nearly always traversed on foot. He became affectionately known by the people as ‘Little Padre’. Due to ill health, Carey-Elwes gave up his post in 1923.

Accounts of Carey-Elwes’ travels in Guyana can be found in several sources in the Archives, such as Letters and Notices, his unpublished autobiography Amazon Valley, and a document in the Guyana archives in which he gives an account of the founding of the Takatu Mission, during which mission he was given a poisoned yam to eat by an unhappy member of the Taruma tribe. Fortunately for Cary-Elwes, he had not eaten enough of the yam for it to do any lasting damage. An unfortunate young member of his party, however, had been given the rest of the yam to eat, and died four days later.

First pages of Fr Cary-Elwes’ account of the Rupununi, or St Ignatius, Mission in Letters and Notices, 1921

In the 60 years after the founding of the Rupununi Mission, the Jesuit presence in British Guiana continued to flourish. By the time of the centenary year in 1957, many more churches and schools had been opened, new missions started, and the Vicariate had been raised to the status of Diocese, with Bishop Lester Guilly SJ as the first Bishop of Georgetown. Between 1922 and 1957 the number of Catholics in British Giuana had more than doubled and the cathedral in Georgetown received more converts than any other church in the Province except Farm Street. Distinguished visitors to the Jesuits during that time include Evelyn Waugh and Prince Philip who, on meeting the Superior of the Mission Fr Gordon SJ, was surprised to discover that he was Scottish. On finding out that the Bishop was also Scottish he is reported to have said, “Why—this is extraordinary—two Scots.”

In May 1966, Guyana became independent from Great Britain. A special issue of the English Jesuit publication Jesuit Missions was printed in that year, giving an overview of various aspects of life in Guyana on the eve of independence such as the geography of the region, population, religion and education.

However Jesuit Missions reported that since the first general election in 1953, increased political consciousness and heightened tensions had led to strikes, violence and arson. The Rupununi Uprising, which began on 2 January 1969, constituted the country’s earliest and most severe test of statehood and social solidarity, when the inhabitants of the Rupununi region were driven to rebel against the authorities, as it was felt that their interests were being ignored and actively harmed by the Prime Minister’s policies. The police station in the town of Lethem was attacked and Valerie Hart, a member of Guyana's Amerindian Party, was named as the first president of the Esequibo Free State, requesting immediate protection from the Venezuelan government.

Jesuit Missions gives an account:

On January 1st Father [Bernard] McKenna [SJ] was in Lethem, en route for Georgetown… Here he joined Father [Stanley] Maxwell [SJ], the resident priest at St Ignatius, Lethem, and Father [Manus] Keane [SJ]… It would appear that the take-off of the mid-morning Guyana Airways Dakota flight on January 2nd was the pre-arranged signal for the revolt to commence; Father Keane was at that time in the District Commissioner’s Office when it was raked with bullet fire. He was then confined by the rebels, together with a number of Government personnel … in the large abattoir adjacent to the airfield. He was released shortly after in order to take some wounded people to the hospital and having done this made his way back to the mission station. Early in the morning of January 3rd Father Maxwell and Father Keane conducted a party of Amerindian women and children across the Takatu River out of possible harm’s way… Lethem was occupied by mid-day on January 3rd by the Defence Force and the Fathers returned to St Ignatius, Lethem.

As a result of the uprising, five policemen and one civilian were killed and Lethem Police Station was completely destroyed. The Venezuelan government publicly rejected the request to help the rebels to annex Rupununi to Venezuela. Frs Keane, McKenna and Maxwell were not allowed to return to the Rupununi District and were replaced by three other Fathers. Bishop Guilly’s plane, whose pilot had been involved in the uprising and used the plane on the rebels’ behalf, was recovered, only superficially damaged, on the airfield.

Today, Guyana and the Rupununi continue to be served by the British Jesuits, and more information about the Jesuits in Guyana can be found at their website, here. If you are interested in the history of the Jesuits in Guyana, or in the work of the Jesuits in Britain Archives in general, please contact us.

Mary Allen, Deputy Archivist