Ninety years ago this Christmas, the final stone was laid for St. Anne’s Chapel in Frenchtown by the townspeople who had put hands and hearts into creating their own place of worship on a small hill overlooking the village.
On Christmas Day, 1921, at 9 a.m., the chapel bell rang for the first time, calling worshipers to the first Mass to be celebrated in the new chapel. The presence of the chapel created by the outreach of its founders – Frs. John Guillo and Paul Dugal – brought a spiritual revival among the villagers, according to the chapel’s recorded history.
It celebrated its first communions in 1922, and later that same year, Octave and Marie Greaux became the first couple to wed there on Nov. 29.
This Sunday, descendants of the early families, along with the larger congregation, will gather for the chapel’s 90th anniversary 8 a.m. Christmas mass, celebrated by Reverend Herbert A. Brevard, Bishop of St. Thomas.
Father Charles Crespo, who was appointed chapel administrator in 2009 by Brevard., said Sunday’s mass will be preceded by a pageant by the congregation’s children, setting off the morning’s activities.
The little chapel, an integral and beloved part of the community, is one of the oldest houses of worship in the Virgin Islands still in its original structure, its bells ringing out over the village announcing masses and funerals several times a week. The chapel is a mission of Sts. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Cathedral.
The friendly Crespo has become a fixture himself, always greeting folks, taking pictures, or saying a few words for the annual Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, in the three years he has been tending his flock.
Crespo has led other parishes, including Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church on St. John, but he said, "I always liked coming to Frenchtown, even before I became part of it. What a wonderful legacy I’ve inherited."
Recalling a bit of history, Crespo explained Friday, "Though chapel celebrated its first Mass in 1911, it was not dedicated until a year later, so the events will go on through 2012.
"We’ve been gearing up for this for a year and a half," Crespo said, eager to tell the story. The labor has, again, come from the congregation.
"A wave of renovations began when the bishop brought in a matching set of antique French gothic furnishings from a church in Pennsylvania that had closed," Crespo said. "He brought a main altar, a side altar for the Lady shrine, a reredos, a baptismal font, Stations of the Cross and wall paneling, all of which were installed and dedicated on April 14, 2010. The furnishings were so classic and reverential that the community was inspired to move forward with further remodeling."
Illustrating his point, Crespo said, "Within one year, the bell tower and the rain gutters were repaired, the land outside the hall was paved, the roof and the chapel were painted, a new side door and 10 clear windows were installed, and an ambo was constructed locally to match the other furnishings.
"Just this week," he said, "we replaced the old pews with cushioned pews, replaced the matching seating in the sanctuary and in the choir loft. When we recognized the need for a matching pulpit, and Allan Richardson stepped up. He created the pulpit and donated it to the church in the memory of his mother, Josephine Richardson, who passed earlier this year."
Richardson is known as the creative wizard of the community, building almost anything from the lobster that once adorned Barnacle Bill’s bar in Sub Base, to the Eiffel Tower that stands in front of the French Heritage Museum.
In a letter to the parishioners included in a commemorative book. Brevard reflected, "Look how far you have come. A little more than 90 years ago, one humble Redemptorist priest dedicated himself to bringing the teachings and sacraments of our faith to the Catholics of Carenage. He celebrated Mass in a small wooden schoolhouse by the seashore.
"Before long," Brevard said, "this community did everything possible to assist in building and maintain what is still today one of the most beautiful little chapels in the Caribbean."
Crespo’s words couldn’t tumble out fast enough as he described the 90th anniversary in print. "We have put together a commemorative book," he said. "It is the biggest, most glorious 132 color pages. We have assembled more than 100 photos provided by the congregation’s old families and the French Heritage Museum.
"The advertising team brought in most of the funding, with memorial ads starting at $25," he said. "We have made an audio version of the book including carols sung by the St. Anne’s choir. We hope sales of the audio at $25 will help pay for finishing the exterior chapel painting."
Today, the chapel community is a happily heterogenous group. Crespo said, "We are black and white, Hispanic and Filipinos, West Indians and mainlanders. We celebrate our differences in a simple little chapel that recognizes we are all the family of God."