A garden party atmosphere on the grounds of the St John’s Parish Church and the strains of classical pianist Frank Fernandes served as the backdrop for Professor Emeritus Sir Henry Fraser’s riveting story of the history of the sacred space, its architecture and its environs.
Delivering a lecture as the Barbados National Trust continued its Open House series on Wednesday, Sir Henry, a product of the St John community, said he had done “many a tour of the cemetery of St John’s Parish Church and researched the stories of some of the amazing people in that cemetery”.
St John’s Parish Church’s first stone iteration was erected around 1660 after a fire destroyed its predecessor. This was then destroyed by a hurricane in 1675. Its replacement suffered a similar fate in 1780. The current structure dates from yet another rebuilding after the Great Hurricane of 1831. Its church tower is one of the highest points in Barbados.
With its crenellations, buttresses and high, arched windows, the architecture is Gothic-inspired and has become a landmark for both locals and tourists. Inside, many of the beautiful objects display prodigious Barbadian woodcarving skills, as well as a surprising variety of woods used.
Sir Henry told his audience: “The church was like most of the early churches of Barbados: a simple wooden church. The settlers came here, and they were very spiritual, reputedly; they were very much afraid of not going to heaven but going to hell. So, they established churches as soon as they possibly could. And in the very earliest days, the first decade, there were six churches, mostly along the West Coast and then they expanded by dividing those parishes into other parishes.
“St John’s came about in 1641 . . . though it would have had a wooden church, which was demolished in a hurry in 1660, rebuilt 1666, demolished again in 1675, properly rebuilt 1780. 1831 demolished. So this is the fifth church on the site.
“Now in the old days, they built churches over crypts – that was the old English style, the old European style. I’ve explored many churches [and] have gone down the steps into the crypts and that was the case here at St John’s Church,” he added.
The history of the church also includes an unlikely connection to Istanbul, or Constantinople, as it was formerly called. A descendant of the Emperor Constantine was for many years a vestryman here and was laid to rest in the church cemetery.