Tipuru celebrates 100 years since arrival of Jesuit missionary

Young Catholics process to the Church of St Aloysius, Tipuru
Young Catholics process to the Church of St Aloysius, Tipuru

The Catholic community in Tipuru, Guyana, and the neighbouring region of the Pakaraima Mountains have been celebrating 100 years since the arrival of a British Jesuit to plant the seed of the Catholic faith. It was in November 1916 that Fr Cuthbert Cary-Elwes SJ stepped onto Macushi territory; and this month, more than 500 Catholics gathered at Tipuru to welcome their bishop – Francis Alleyne OSB – and to celebrate their centenary with the Eucharist.

Cuthbert Cary-Elwes SJ (1867-1945) was educated by the Jesuits at Stonyhurst College and, by the age of nine, he had already made up his mind to become a Jesuit, following in the footsteps of his uncle, the pioneer missionary of the Zambezi, Fr Augustus Law SJ.  He was missioned to British Guiana in 1904 and spent the next 13 years establishing missions – covering a pastoral area of some 300 square miles (780 km2). He would walk for hours and days, supported by prayer: “Without a real spirit of prayer,” he said, “my life as a missionary would be impossible.”Fr Cuthbert Cary-Elwes SJ, 1867-1945

Mission houses and churches

Known among the local people as ‘Little Padre’, Cary-Elwes (right) was renowned for his natural gentleness, prayerfulness and love for the Indians – as well as for his determination to learn the language of the Patamona people.  After five years in Morawhanna, he was moved to establish new missions in the interior of British Guiana. “For 13 years, he journeyed, baptised and did heavy manual work in the building of mission houses and churches,” says the Jesuits in Britain’s Assistant Archivist, Mary Allen. “His mission field extended from the River Ireng among the Patamona Indians to the River Rupununi among the Wapishanas, a distance of 280 miles, which he nearly always traversed on foot.”

Earlier this month, the centenary of Fr Cary-Elwes’ arrival in Tipuru attracted hundreds to the celebrations. “Tractors and all sorts of other vehicles wound their way through the hills, climbing from the south and descending from the north,” says the current Jesuit Superior of the Pakaraimas and Rupunini District, Fr Jim Conway SJ. “By mid-afternoon, crowds of people had arrived and had made their way to the running waters of Tipuru creek to wash away the dust and grime of the journey.”

Bishop Francis Alleyne OSB celebrates the centenary Eucharist at TipuruBishop Francis himself travelled up the trail with the four Tildonk Ursuline Sisters who live in Karasabai and who look after Tipuru and the South Pakaraima villages. They were welcomed by Collette Johny, the chairperson of St Aloysius Church, who has been at the forefront of the community’s preparations. As well as completely renovating and decorating their church building, the community excelled in welcoming and offering hospitality to their guests. Upwards of 350 visitors strung up their hammocks and were fed dinner.

Spreading the joy of the gospel

“St Aloysius Church, Tipuru, with its neighbouring villages, had spent months preparing for the centenary weekend,” says Fr Jim. “A century before, Fr Cuthbert Cary-Elwes, the first Catholic priest to step onto Macushi territory, had visited Tipuru and from there had gone out all across the Pakaraimas, sowing the seeds of the Catholic faith. Today, the fruits of his labour and of countless Catholic women and men who have since followed is witnessed to through the Church’s presence in more than 35 Pakaraima villages, Macushi and Patamona.”Trucks are loaded for the return journey in the Guyanese Interior

On the Saturday evening, the community staged a cultural show, which drew on the talent and creativity of the people in the village and its southern neighbours. The following day in a packed church, the congregation celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving and praise for the Church’s constant presence in the Pakaraimas for 100 years. It included the Sacrament of Confirmation for 23 young people from Tipuru, Rukumuta and Yurong Paru who were anointed to be more like Christ and to go out and spread the joy of the gospel.

Fr Jim feels that the words from Psalm 97 that were proclaimed at the Sunday Mass could have been written in Tipuru. “Nestled in the south Pakaraima mountains, Tipuru is a slice of paradise,” he says. “After the celebrations, the people departed – just as they had arrived 24 hours before: tractors were loaded, trucks and vehicles were filled. The young and courageous revved their motor bikes and took off into the hills … ‘Let the rivers clap their hands and the hills ring out their joy at the presence of the Lord!’”

See more photos from the Tipuru centenary celebrations on Catholic Media Guyana. And read Fr Jim Conway's blog about his journey in faith and justice.