Saturday, March 21, 2015

Cat Island’s Many Charms

Cat Island, Bahamas
March 7 – 17, 2015

Cat Island is home to the highest point in The Bahamas, 206 feet above sea level. Around it, lush green hills with low scrub and tropical vegetation undulate to rocky ironshore or sparkling coves and beaches. It’s a quiet island with a much smaller population than other large Bahamian islands. What it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in the charm of its people and places.

The High Point
On the highest peak, Mt. Alvernia (formerly Como Hill), sits the Hermitage. It’s the masterwork of Father Jerome, the priest/architect who built seven churches on Long Island (see post below) and four on Cat Island. At age 64, he began work on this one-man monastery in miniature, his retirement home where he would dedicate himself to seclusion and contemplation, inspired by the 360-degree view. Stone by stone, bucket by bucket, he hauled materials up the steep incline, maybe as an effort to share in the sufferings of Jesus. On that rocky pathway he carved monuments to the Stations of the Cross. Although he was a tall man, he crafted the buildings and doorways of the Hermitage to be small enough that one has to stoop to enter. His intention is obvious.
Path to The Hermitage with Stations of the Cross
Bas-relief sculpture of Station XIII
The Hermitage, chapel and bell tower
The Hermitage roofline
The Hermitage from the back. Or is it the front?
When Keith lived in Nassau as a teenager, he was part of a church youth program called Stockade. Among other adventures and activities, they would camp where Atlantis now sits. He remembers his group leader, Edison Pinder. Edison married Eunice, the pastor’s daughter. Her sister lives in Minneapolis and attends church with Keith’s parents. Through that connection, all these years later we found out Edison and Eunice live on Cat Island. We called them when we arrived on Saturday, and they picked us up for church on Sunday. The church was associated with an orphanage. At the end of the service, the twelve kids who live in the home sang a closing song. It was beautiful and touching!

Edison and Eunice formerly lived on a boat and traveled to different islands to work with young people. Now they work with the children and teens on Cat Island. Their summers are filled with Vacation Bible School (VBS) programs. During the school year, they present weekly programs much like VBS in the small primary schools that dot the length of the island. We had the privilege of seeing what they do one afternoon. The kids were amped up when Mrs. Pinder arrived with her guitar. They gathered for a rousing assembly featuring entertaining songs with motions and a Bible story. Then they filed (Girls first! Quiet, please!) back to their individual classrooms, and we moved from one to the next assisting with a craft that incorporated art skills. There are no art or music curricula in the schools, and many students need to learn basics such as how to hold a scissors properly. We had such fun doing goofy song motions and loving on these polite, happy, and energetic kids.
Eunice leading a fun song with motions

Eunice and Edison with Puppet (whose eyes don't look like this is real life!)
 After hosting us at their home for dinner, Eddie and Eunice loaned us their extra vehicle for three days. That allowed us to reconnect with another old friend from Keith’s Nassau life—a classmate from St. Andrews named Andrew Jones. Andrew is a Bahamian-American singer/songwriter. His home lies at the end of a three-mile-long bumpy dirt road where there are no other houses. We’d heard that he was “off the grid,” and so I pictured something humble and rustic. Au contraire! Andrew’s sister-in-law is a Parisian fashion designer/architect. Made from Brazilian hardwood, the custom house she designed is elegant, dramatic, and serene. Completely powered by solar energy, it blends into its natural environment beautifully. If you’re interested in renting a fabulous house/retreat center that can accommodate groups of 10-15, a place nestled in seclusion on a hilltop overlooking a private crescent beach, check out Spirit House Bahamas. Keith called Andrew out of the blue that morning after no contact for forty years, and the connection was instantaneous. Neither of them could have imagined at the end of Form Three the paths their lives would take, or that the next time they’d see each other, it would be on Cat Island.  It was a true pleasure for me to meet Andrew and for Keith to catch up. Our hearts connected over lunch as he told his story of battling life-threatening illness and feeling renewed on Cat Island.
The deck of Andrew's home

His private beach
Keith and Andrew
Driving back toward our boat after lunch with Andrew, we stopped at a resort in Old Bight that other boaters had talked about on the VHF radio. Rollezzz Beach Resort had welcomed anchored cruisers to come ashore and the owner, Carl Rolle, generously allowed them to enjoy a bonfire on his beach. At the resort we talked with Mr. Rolle and somehow got on the subject of Keith’s earlier life in Nassau. He was well aware of the Christian Bookshop on Shirley Street, which Keith’s parents had managed. He said they would know his wife, Yvonne Smith, because she was in the bookstore all the time. In fact, his sister-in-law, Margaret, had worked there. What?? Margaret Smith? We know her! She’s a delightful person who had come to Minnesota to attend our alma mater. There were more old connections on Cat Island than we anticipated.

Thursday we toured the north end of the island and planned to sail north on Friday. But the wind came on strong and we stayed put for another day. It was a fortunate turn of events because there was rake ’n’ scrape music on shore that evening. Traditional Bahamian rake ’n’ scrape includes a concertina or accordion, a saw, and a goombay drum. The music style evolved in the Out Islands, most notably Cat Island. We’d met and talked with Pompey (Bo-Hog) Johnson several times but didn’t think we’d get the chance to hear him play. He and his renowned group, Bo-Hog and the Rooters, have appeared on The Today Show and even in Paris. That night at the regatta site on the beach in New Bight it was a treat to hear them in person.
Heating up the goombay drum on the stove. Really!
Crystal Smith, saw; Pompey (Bo-Hog) Johnson, concertina; Cedell (CD) Hunter, goombay drum
Other Highlights (from south to north)
Cristo Redentor Church, designed by Father Jerome
Interior of Cristo Redentor
St. Francis of Assisi chapel, designed by Father Jerome, in disuse and being overtaken by the bush
Fernandez Bay Village resort; we had a delicious lunch when anchored here
With Julian, owner of Da Smoke Pot, who hasn't cut his hair in 27 years!
Beautiful stone church in Arthur Town
Orange Creek Beach
At the mouth of Orange Creek; dries at low tide
Shanna's Cove resort, where we had a most amazing dinner!
Cave at Man o' War Point
A gorgeous natural sculpture garden of hurricane-tossed, sun-bleached casuarina roots 
Speaking of charms, Cat Island is said to be the center of the practice of obeah—a Bahamian/African form of voodoo that combines bush medicine and witchcraft. We’d heard we might see bottles hanging from a tree in a yard or objects above a chimney to ward off evil spirits. Some islanders won’t leave a window open at night because spirits might enter. It isn’t spoken of openly by practitioners, and we didn’t see evidence of it. What we did see all around us were signs of God’s grace and goodness in the extraordinary beauty of creation and the charming people we met.
God’s glory is on tour in the skies, God-craft on exhibit across the horizon…. 
Their words aren’t heard, their voices aren’t recorded, 
But their silence fills the earth: unspoken truth is spoken everywhere. 
Psalm 19:1-4 MSG


  1. Absolutely lovely post. Learned so much. Superb photos. We also will be back in MN about the same time. Have to be there May 3rd. Can't leave until April 18th is over; Earth Day and well embedded in it. Moving Ihana to Hinckley Boat Yard in Manatee Pocket off the St Lucie River. Electricity in the boat yard so can run a dehumidifier and save much of 6 days of decommissioning the boat. Keeping very busy here becoming part of the community and having visitors. Lots of hugs coming your way. Bob and Ilona

  2. Wow! I would say Cat Island must be one of your favorite sites on the amazing trip. It must have been a thrill for Keith to reconnect with his friend of 40 years ago. Great post!