Compared to the Exumas or the Abacos, few cruisers visit Cat Island. That’s because of a conflict between cruising culture and geography covered on these pages under the headline Better in the Spring. That’s too bad, because Cat Island is home to one of the most fascinating attractions in all these islands. It is a monument called The Hermitage, atop the Bahamas’ highest peak, Mount Alvernia (Elevation: 206 feet above sea level). Beneath Alvernia is a decent beach anchorage, sheltered by the island from prevailing easterly winds, but not the storm winds that blow during winter frontal passages.
The waters of the Bahamas treat the human eye to swaths of color ranging from the darkest blue to aquamarine, and to something resembling Pinot Grigio near the place where sea gives way to sand. Beneath the water, coral reefs comprise entire lush worlds of stunningly beautiful, brightly colored sea life. For the most part, however, the land is flat, scrubby, and unremarkable.
A MEMORABLE ARCHITECT
One man who brought beauty and proportion to the Bahamian landscape was an eccentric priest remembered here as Father Jerome.
Father Jerome, who lived from 1876 to 1956, was a trained architect who designed and built many churches in the Bahamas. The three I’ve seen were whitewashed, and I can only describe their style as Greco-Celtic with that Moorish influence so often found in old Mediterranean architecture.
My favorite was the more eccentric of the two churches Father Jerome built at Clarence Town on Long Island. From our slip at the Flying Fish Marina, we could see its twin towers: this was the Roman Catholic church of the settlement. It hardly seemed to belong to the land with its ranch houses and metal commercial buildings. It was like a relic left behind by a retreating sea, as if the religion of mythological Atlantis shared the Catholic Jesus.
(Long Island, too, is rarely visited compared to the popular Exumas. In fact, George Town is often called “Chicken Harbor” because cruisers, having braved “northers” to get there, are dissuaded from going any further across open water.)
Father Jerome had overseen the construction of another Clarence Town church years before his conversion to Romanism, when he was serving as an Anglican priest. The English brand of Christ worship must have tasted like weak tea to this deeply spiritual Englishman.
After Long Island we came to Cat, spending a long afternoon at the place where Father Jerome had created his personal masterpiece, the Hermitage. He had built himself a retirement home from thousands of stones, a one-man monastery that looks ancient, as if plucked from an Irish landscape. Indeed, the green and hilly landscape of Cat Island, as seen from Mount Alvernia, evokes pictures of Ireland, until the eye wanders far enough westward to take in the blue-green Bahamian shallows.
Past the gate at the foot of the hill, one must climb the same steep, rock-strewn front yard over which Father Jerome had manually hauled the rocks and mortar to the summit. “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 that philosophy. 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 there still hangs a big bell, rusted now and silent.
Father Jerome had spent his 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 and badly enough to leave his respected position in Australia. He returned to the Bahamas of his Anglican youth. Father Jerome had been a sailor, and here on Cat he built himself the Hermitage like other men might build a boat, and he anchored his soul to a hill beneath the undiluted stars.
Only the anchor dragged. The plan failed.
UNTIL THE END
Father Jerome became a celebrity. 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 for the Bahamians. If I may summarize 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. He was buried, as per his request, barefoot and without a coffin in a cave on the hillside just beneath his one-man monastery.
The Hermitage is open 24/7. No admission is charged. No one tends the property. Bring your dogs. Bring a picnic. Bring a bottle of wine. Unless the cruising culture changes, you will likely drink alone…and in peace.