Following the Trail of Father Jerome : Cat Island's Hermitage is a Unique Monument to Mystical FaithJune 15, 2007 - 5:10pm — Peter Swanson
On a dewy morning you might daydream of Ireland.
Surrounded by a rolling green landscape, a stone monastery in miniature scale stands abandoned around you, looking like something St. Patrick himself had called home. But as your eyes wander westward, the sea shines in colors no Irish homebody ever beheld. The blue-green bands of shallow water signal that this is a Bahamian place.
The place is called the Hermitage. It is the crown atop Mount Alvernia, the highest peak in the entire Bahamian archipelago, though it rises to a mere 206 feet above sea level. This one-man monastery was the work of its sole resident, a brilliant and eccentric Roman Catholic clergyman who called himself Father Jerome.
Father Jerome, who lived from 1876 to 1956, was a trained architect who designed and built many churches in the Bahamas. Their styles vary, but one of the most stunning—the Catholic church at Clarence Town on Long Island—could be described as Greco-Celtic with a hint of Moorish influence so often found in old Mediterranean architecture. It is one of the most beautiful buildings in all the islands.
It was Father Jerome’s second church in Clarence Town. He had overseen the construction of the first, years before converting to Catholicism, when he was serving as an Anglican priest. His conversion suggests that the English brand of religion was too tepid to this deeply spiritual Englishman.
Father Jerome will be remembered for his churches. Standing atop peaceful, windswept Mount Alvernia, however, you would be tempted to consider this place Father Jerome’s masterpiece. Father Jerome built The Hermitage himself stone by stone, all of which he personally hauled to the summit. There were two paths: one steep and direct; the other longer and less strenuous. Most of us would push our heavy-laden wheelbarrow up the latter, but with Father Jerome one suspects not.
He decorated the difficult route with concrete bas-relief “stations of the cross,” so maybe he lugged his materials this way in penitence.
“A proper church is no mere assembly hall, theatre or auditorium for preaching and community singing, but it is first of all a place of sacrifice,” Monsignor John Cyril Hawes wrote years before, assuming the name Father Jerome. “It should breathe forth an atmosphere of prayer of religious awe and supernatural mystery.”
Even in the Hermitage’s tiny chapel with its single pew, Father Jerome succeeded in creating that atmosphere. A few yards away, his tiny sleeping quarters still featured his simple planked bed, no bigger than a ship’s berth. In the stone tower still hangs a big bell, rusted now and silent.
He had spent a career doing many things, including building churches and a cathedral in Australia, all of which are now considered national treasures there. His tenure Down Under had been anything but peaceful, however, as he toiled in and out of favor, depending on which bishop held sway.
Finally in 1939, he wanted out badly enough to leave his respected position in Australia. He returned to the Bahamas of his younger days. Here on Cat Island he built himself the Hermitage like other men might build a boat, and he anchored his soul beneath the undiluted stars.
But if his plan was to lead a quiet, contemplative life, it went awry. Father Jerome became a celebrity in the Bahamas. His skills were in great demand, and so he went back to work building churches, a convent, a monastery and a boy’s college, all in the Bahamas. Summarizing one biographer: Father Jerome worked himself to death. And he did not die in his monk’s bed but across the water at a Catholic Hospital in Miami.
If you have thoughts of a Bahamian getaway, consider Cat Island. Like any out island, Cat has sandy beaches, beautiful water, friendly faces and bountiful fishing, but only on Cat will you be able to commune with the spirit of Father Jerome. Surely Father Jerome would forgive you if you came to his place for a picnic and bottle of wine—red, of course.