It is another hot and windy day on Exuma Sound. I’m low on food and water; bound for a little settlement that can provide neither. You may wonder why I would do such an odd thing, especially when the fishing has been so fruitless lately, but New Bight Settlement on Cat Island is a place like no other.
Ukiyo, my 36-foot Grand Banks is bouncing through the clear, choppy waves over a sandy-bottom shoal at 9 knots. Off to my right is the spot where many argue Columbus first landed in 1492, claiming it for Spain and naming it San Salvador, a name that stuck until 1926. Dead ahead however, is the true reason for my pilgrimage. The clouds part and I can finally lay eyes on it, way off at the crest of Comer Hill; a solitary stone sentinel standing strong in defiance of myriad tropical storms that have battered it over the years. It is the Hermitage - a final tribute of one man’s humble devotion to God.
The anchorage off the settlement is exposed, making launching the dinghy for the rough ride in a tough job. After getting ashore, I begin forthwith the trek to the highest point in the Bahamas, 206-feet above sea level. Built and occupied by Monsignor John Hawes, or “Father Jerome,” the winding path to the top reflects the serpentine path his own life took that culminated in the priesthood and a Spartan lifestyle on Cat Island.
Trained in the UK as an architect, then ordained as an Anglican priest he worked as a teamster in Canada, Hawes converted to Catholicism and was re-ordained in 1915 and sent to Western Australia to build churches. He returned to the Bahamas in 1939, where he had been assigned years before, and built the hermitage where he lived in seclusion until his death in 1956. The churches he designed there and on nearby islands are built to withstand the test of time in this harsh environment, no two are alike and all still survive.
The wind makes the heat tolerable until the acrid smoke of an agricultural burn wafts over the road; a lone farmer surveys the scorched, rocky earth that he’ll soon plant with sorghum and squash. Undoubtedly, Life is tough on Cat Island, just as it was in Father Jerome’s time. As I look around, a strange feeling overcomes me. Something is missing here.
All at once I realize I am the sole visitor of the island. And for my five-day visit I would see no other boats and only a scattering of residents; that can’t be good for business. Cruise liners don’t stop here and the 1,700 inhabitants eek out a hard scrabble life, making a living however they can.
Back at the base of the hill a stone arch greets would be visitors with the Latin inscription, “Deus Meus Et Omnia,” translating to, “My God and my all.” As I look up to see the imposing stone monastery, which would fit perfectly into the next “Hobbit” movie; the trail up is sided with dense and claustrophobic gnarled brush and limestone scree. A steep side trail leads off to the right where Hawes, at the ripe age of sixty-one, constructed the thirteen Stations of the Cross; hauling by hand every stone need to complete the structure.
Upon summiting, pilgrims are rewarded with a breeze and a view of both Exuma Sound and the Atlantic, which go unnoticed by me as I gape incredulously at the Hermitage.
Though completed over 70 years ago, it could pass for a 21st century structure; only the peeling paint on the windows and door frames betray its age. A smart man, Father Jerome knew the frequent storms would try to level these structures and he built them to take a pounding. In some places the stone and mortar is over two-feet thick.
But I’ve been tricked by an optical illusion. The imposing structure I saw at the bottom is in truth is no bigger than a small house—I’ve been on boats bigger than this place. Upon completion of his Bahamas churches, Father Jerome had petitioned the Bishop to live a hermetic life. One can’t help but feel he intentionally built the Hermitage to discourage visitors, that this was his last act in this life and that he was cloistering himself away.
I squeeze my 74-inch frame into the narrow passageway of this one-man monastery and come to a tiny kitchen, flanked by a one-pew church that is the smallest I have ever seen; followed by a one-bed dormitory. A friend saw this photo of me sitting on his bunk and said I looked worried. In so many words, that is correct. I felt as if I was trespassing on his inner sanctum. The presence of Father Jerome was so strong that I felt any second he would come round the corner and confront me.
Next came the Lilliputian bell tower, which, to my amazement, still rings true and clear. He may have been a hermit but Father Jerome still reminded everyone that they should go to church. Peering out from the belfry there was no doubt I was the highest human in all the Bahamas at that moment. The only apparent “luxury” Father Jerome enjoyed was a nearby well.
Back in the settlement I tried to find someone familiar with the hermit priest. Though all knew the name, only Estella Mae Johnson remembered his occasional visits to her church when she was a little girl, and his inveterate kindness. “He was very old,” she reminisced. “And [he] didn’t talk much.”
On a long walk to the grocery store I notice derelict homes from the plantation era litter the side of the Main Road, often sharing the same lot with a modern home. Ascetically they don’t add much to the place and I wonder why they are there. Later on I learn that Cat Islanders, most of who are related, believe the spirits of the dead remain in these structures and that people are reluctant to tear them down.
It was getting late. The wind had increased and was blowing hard from the south; time to find another anchorage before dark. With sun sinking low I motored off and set a course for a harbor that would give me limited protection from the approaching cold front.
Looking back I spied the Hermitage one last time with its lone spire, standing ready to shelter Father Jerome’s spirit for the next hundred tropical storms. Or perhaps, waiting for a new resident to pick up where Father Jerome left off.