Saving the soul of the city

T&T’s historic Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is to be restored. Caroline Taylor records its past, present and plans for its future

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is one of the most impressive historical landmarks in Trinidad & Tobago’s capital of Port of Spain. With a foundation stone laid back in 1816, this magnificent Roman Catholic minor basilica was completed and consecrated in 1851. But after nearly 200 years, the cathedral, which was reconstructed after a 1966 earthquake, is in dire need of restoration. Recognising this need, the Archdiocese of Port of Spain has launched the Archbishop’s Appeal to raise funds for its restoration.

Over the course of the cathedral’s history, it has “become a refuge for all people, away from the hustle and bustle of life in the city,” explains Joanne Fortuné-Miller, chair of the Archbishop’s Appeal. “It remains the centre of religious and social outreach programmes in the community: the St Vincent de Paul Society, the Ave Maria House Caring Centre, and the Living Water Community.”

Additionally, the cathedral runs educational development programmes for schoolchildren; daily religious services (including masses, marriages, funerals, baptisms, first communions, confirmations, inter-faith services, and more); as well as Bible study and marriage-preparation classes.

Public awareness and support for the preservation of the country’s architectural heritage has grown significantly over the last decade, so that the campaign for the restoration of the cathedral has already raised TT$3.5 million.

But there is a long way to go. The first phase of the project alone consists of emergency works costing TT$55 million. Another eight phases are scheduled to follow, as funds become available, to continue over five years. A dilapidation survey revealed that for years, the cathedral has been suffering from fragile gables and roofing; moisture damage from a subterranean river nearby; and tide levels that encroach on the crypt where the archbishops are interred.

Prepared and ready to go ahead as soon as funding is secured, a team of consultants has been contracted to ensure the renovation is done to the highest possible standards. The team has tried to ensure there is as little disruption as possible to the community that makes use of the cathedral, though it will need to be closed over the first year of emergency works. Its work to date has included identifying and protecting materials and features from the period when the cathedral was built, and re-creating features that have been degraded over time.

History of a house of God

The church’s first incarnation was in what is now known as Tamarind Square, an area of reclaimed land. It was erected in 1781 during the Spanish colonial era, constructed simply of wood and clay with a shingled roof. Despite the British takeover in 1797, a significant proportion of the island’s population – planters, slaves, and free coloured – remained Roman Catholic.

As part of the reconstruction and expansion works after an 1808 fire in Port of Spain, Governor Sir Ralph Woodford, himself an Anglican, commissioned British architect Philip Reinagle to rebuild the church as a cathedral. At the time, the site overlooked the coastline, but subsequent reclamation has left the cathedral much further inland. Reinagle’s design was in the Gothic style, in the shape of a Latin cross. The walls and the original towers were of blue limestone mined from the nearby Laventille quarries, though the towers had to be replaced after an 1825 earthquake.

The cathedral’s impressive features include a pentagonal altar made from Florentine marble; ironwork imported from England; a Walker & Sons pipe organ, which at the time of its introduction in 1913 was the island’s first; and stained-glass windows imported from Ireland in 1984, depicting the different ethnic groups which form Trinidad & Tobago’s diverse population.

 

Restoration timeline

Year 1:    Emergency works; clerestory rose windows and roof

Year 2:    External works – repair exterior decorative mouldings; repoint stone and brick walls, doors, windows, arches

Year 3:    Refurbish stained-glass windows; remove portland cement from architraves and sills; refurbish timber decorative panels on trusses; construct new timber mezzanine floors; plumbing and electrical repairs

Year 4:    Install air conditioning, sound, video, lighting and security; repair and replace memorabilia; restore sanctuary; reinstate main altar; refinish floors; new baptism font

Year 5:    Landscaping; fencing; driveways and car park; external lighting; repair organ
For more information on the Archbishop’s Appeal, including ways to donate and get involved in the conservation project, visit: www.rcposappeal.org

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