I Found It at the JCB

August 2009

August 2009

“De la mission irlandaise:” The Irish Catholic mission at Point-de-Sable
by Matteo Binasco


The Irish in Saint Kitts

Combat at Sandy Point

Combat at Sandy Point, Saint Christopher, from Jean Baptiste du Tertre, Histoire generale des Antilles habitées par les François , vol. 1, Paris, 1667.

Image from the collections of the
John Carter Brown Library.
Not to be reproduced without permission.

‘The number of the Irish being considerable in America, and there it keeps on augmenting each year’.
(Pierre Pelleprat, Relation des missions des PP. de la Compagnie de Jesus dans les isles ... de l' Amerique ..., Paris, 1655, p. 36).

Pierre Pelleprat, a French Jesuit missionary (1606-1667) active in the 1650s in the West Indies, opened the fifth chapter of his account with this statement. He dedicated the chapter to the mission of the Irish confrere, John Strich (1616-1681), who worked among his fellow countrymen at Saint Christopher from 1650 until 1662. The Irish presence, composed of indentured servants, had grown on the English (and Protestant side) of the island. However, except two Irish secular priests active in period between 1638 and 1640, this community was almost never served by an adequate number of Catholic missionaries. The paucity of Irish priests in the West Indies directly related to the paucity of resources of the Irish Catholic church (this was the era of the Cromwellian anti-Irish campaign). According to Pelleprat, Strich built a temporary chapel at Pointe-de-Sables, in the French part of the island. The establishment of the mission, and especially the arrival of Strich, was welcomed with joy by the Irish settlers. Pelleprat noted that many of them, once informed that “a Father of their nation was arrived,” forgot the danger to which they exposed themselves and they “went in mass, and without hiding to salute a man that God sent to their succours.” (Pelleprat, p. 37)

Slowly Strich’s activity began to have a routine similar to that carried out in Europe by the parish priests. The Jesuit was daily at the chapel of Point-de-Sable where he administered the Sacraments, heard confession, and baptized the children of the Irish settlers. Using Saint Christopher as a base, Strich also visited the Irishmen of Montserrat disguising his identity as a priest from the English there by representing himself as a timber merchant. The Irish settlers on Montserrat, in turn, contributed to the priest’s cover by cutting and bringing some wood each time they met with the missionary. Once returned Saint Christopher, Strich continued his apostolate although soon it was no longer tolerated by the English authorities. In reprisal, the English prohibited Irishmen from visiting Point-de-Sable and even expelled 120 of them from the island. Anti-Catholic sentiment forced Strich to relocate his mission to Guadeloupe. There, in 1653, the Jesuit made an agreement with Charles Houel, governor of the island, who allowed the arrival of a certain number of Irishmen from Saint Christopher. Until 1662, year of his return to Ireland, Strich based his work at Guadeloupe, but continued secretly to toil at Saint Christopher.

Pelleprat ’s account provides us with the best insight on Strich’s missionary experience in the English islands of the West Indies. Except the few letters written by Father John Strich (edited by Aubrey Gywn and used by Giovanni Pizzorusso*), Pelleprat’s chapters on “la mission irlandaise” provide us with a solitary glimpse of a Counter-Reformation missionary who operated in remote seventeenth-century Irish communities in the West Indies.

*Aubrey Gwynn, SJ, “Documents relating to the Irish in the West Indies”, in Analecta Hibernica, vol.4 (1932),p. 139-286; Giovanni Pizzorusso, Roma nei Caraibi. L’organizzazione delle missioni cattoliche nelle Antille e in Guyana (1635-1675), (Rome, 1995), p. 68-69.

Matteo Binasco, National University of Ireland, Galway, IRELAND, was a Center for New World Comparative Studies Fellow at the John Carter Brown Library in the spring of 2009.


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