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The cathedral in the east

With its rustic stone walls, towering steeple and Roman-styled stained glass windows you cannot miss the imposing presence that is the country’s oldest church — St. Matthew’s Anglican Church located on Shirley Street. After 209 years the thick walls and pews are brimming with history and memories.  And if the walls could “talk”, they sure would have stories to tell.

Built in 1802 by the contractor Joseph Eve, the heavy stone edifice became known to many as the cathedral in the East.

“Prior to the building of St. Matthew’s, people from all parts of the island would have to make their way to the cathedral [which was a small wooden room] located in the west at the time,” said St. Matthew’s Anglican church historian, Iris Finlayson. “After it became too populated and people from the east continued to need a more convenient church, plans were put in motion to build the church.

St. Matthew’s was built by Joseph Eve.  Originally it was estimated to cost 3,000 pounds to built.  The final price tag was 7,000 pounds — without the steeple which was built years later in 1807 by John Arthur and James White.”

St. Matthew’s was more than just a church to the communities that called it their church home in those days.  It was the only church with a steeple at the time and a clock which chimed every quarter hour.  It’s chiming could be heard as far as Montagu and became an essential marker in the everyday life of those who lived in the neighboring communities.

“When I was growing up the clock was one of the only reliable public timepieces in town and it really kept people on schedule for whatever they were doing,” said Finlayson.  “It said many things at different times of the day whether it was saying it was time to wake-up, time to eat lunch, or of course time to go to church.”

The church itself, unlike other structures built in that era has been well-maintained, and retains much of its original architectural structure.  The walls are built without steel and in order to ensure structural integrity the walls were made very thick and compact.

Its interior remains a light sage green and the original pillars are still intact.  The church has not been painted or changed very much on the outside which allows the natural weathering of the stone to take place and give this historic church its unique personality.

“Besides the structure itself the church has a rich history that started even before the building of it began. For a period the congregation of people who eventually would be St. Matthew’s members gathered in a small room with benches before the church was built.  When it was completed, it became the central place of worship for many people far and close in vicinity.  As it became more established and there were numerous priests who came and went there were some who were more colorful in nature than others.  In fact in the column “Notes From The Diary of An Old Bahamian” published by The Guardian in 1900, the writer mentioned the colorful characteristics of the church at the time in a little epigram as he recalled what he remembered of the times: ‘A cork leg parson/A wooden arm sexton/A fig tree steeple and/A bad set of people.’ This was all explained in that the priest at the time was Father Groombridge who had lost his leg in the Navy, his sexton had also lost an arm and the bell of the church was hung on a fig tree. The church has come a far way.”

More than 200 years later St. Matthew’s Anglican Church still stands in all its glory and still ignites a sense of pride in it’s membership.

Laurena Finlayson, 40, a fourth generation in her family to call St. Matthew’s home, was one of 11 young women to be made altar servers for the first time in this church when it was under Archdeacon James Palacious. She is the only one left from the original batch.

“I remember being so proud of my church that when I was in school and I would return home, we would have to drive down the East Bay Street to get home just so I could see the steeple.”

Her greatest concern for the church’s future is that they do not have a strong youth ministry, which means the church can eventually die out if nothing is done.  She also says the church membership has dwindled, which is also not good.  She can still remember the days when the church overflowed with people attending Mass.

Lifelong member, Vivienne Francis, 80, who also served as organist, can foresee things getting better, especially as the Diocese had the honor of having two female deacons in Rev. Angela Palacious and Rev. Beryl Higgs.

Her pet peeve is that there is too much chatter in the church and the youth not worshiping in a quiet and reverant way.

“The clothes the people wear to church now … Father would roll over in his grave as they would say,” said Francis.

In spite of that, she says she is proud to be a member of the church because of the accomplishments made there.

Although things are not the same and many things have improved such as the interior of the church and it now being under the rectorship of Bahamian priests, some things like history and communal commitment never change.

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