Life on the island of Tristan da Cunha began with Napoleon. Today, it is sustained by faith
The main island of Tristan da Cunha prides itself on being the most remote inhabited island in the world. It takes up to two weeks to get there by sea from South Africa.
This gives the Catholic parish of St Joseph’s a claim to being the most remote parish on earth. It was thanks to Napoleon that life on the island began. When the defeated emperor was exiled to St Helena, the British sent a garrison to Tristan da Cunha as a precaution against a French attempt to liberate him. Pretty soon the government realised that the French weren’t coming, and even if they were, Tristan da Cunha was so far away that they certainly wouldn’t come from there. So the garrison was withdrawn. Some of the men stationed there sought leave to remain on the island, and thus the little settlement of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas was born.
The Catholic community on the island began with the arrival of a remarkable woman from Mullingar called Agnes Rogers, remembered today by islanders as Granny Aggie. She came to work as housekeeper for the island’s administrator. This devout soul was horrified to find no Catholic church and no sign of a priest ever having visited the island.
She came under enormous pressure to renounce her faith and simply conform to the majority religious practice. She refused and was treated appallingly by the authorities. The prejudice was such that, when food was scarce, she was even denied rations. Eventually, her stubborn love of her faith wore down the opposition and she established a small chapel in her home. The parish was born.
In 1932, Fr LH Barry was the first Catholic priest to visit Tristan (he was Catholic chaplain on HMS Carlisle). Aggie hadn’t seen a priest for 23 years. He reported that “She heard Mass and went to the Sacraments, and her joy was great and touching to see.” The next recorded visit of a priest was in 1955. He wrote: “On Tristan da Cunha, the world’s loneliest island, I heard the first Confession of children too young to remember what a priest looks like. They were better prepared than many of the children who live within sight of city churches.
“ ‘Did they do all right?’ Agnes Rogers anxiously asked me.
“‘Yes, Grannie Aggie – God bless you – they did splendidly!’
“Agnes has lived most of her life beyond the reach of priest and sacrament.
Nevertheless, Sunday after Sunday, she tries, humbly, to instil into her kin something of her own simple greatness.”
We are now preparing to set Granny Aggie on the path to canonisation, but for the islanders she is a saint already.
Today the parish is cared for by three catechists, all descendants of Granny Aggie. A priest visits once a year, normally in September. This year, however, I visited the parish in January and February. This meant sailing on the good ship Edinburgh, a “fish factory” that can carry 12 passengers wishing to visit the island. The accommodation on this working vessel is small and basic. Getting into my small berth each night was quite a challenge, as I am not exactly petite. And as for the South Atlantic swells, I can assure you that they are anything but swell. The voyage was so bad that I’m pretty sure the captain was considering throwing me overboard, like Jonah. But thankfully we made it.
Tristan da Cunha has a population of 263, just over a third of whom are Catholics. This may seem a small number to travel such great distances to visit, but the kindness and deep faith of the islanders made the long voyage well worthwhile.
The island’s motto is “Our faith is our strength”. A shining example of this strong faith is the building of their new church in the 1990s. It was a time when the prolonged absence of a priest and other pressures had led to a fall in church attendance. The remaining faithful decided to pray a novena together asking the Lord to bring their families and friends back to the Church. Having done this, they reckoned that when God had answered their prayers they would need a bigger church. So they set about constructing a larger one. Sure enough, numbers increased and the new church was filled.
The islanders’ kindness is evident above all in their care for the elderly, who are loved, respected and looked after. When I visited the oldest islander (aged 102) she was so delighted to see a priest that she put her teeth in for the occasion.
It is a great privilege to be responsible for the spiritual welfare and needs of this isolated parish community. This island has a lot to teach us, including the need to slow down and take life as a gift; care and concern for each other’s welfare; and, above all, contentment with the life they have. Like anywhere, there are problems and worries, but for islanders the faith really is their strength.
Abbot Hugh Allan O.Praem is apostolic administrator of the Falkland Islands and the superior of the ecclesial mission sui juris of St Helena, Tristan da Cunha and Ascension Island
This article first appeared in the March 16 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here