Religious practice remains one of the most prominent features of Caribbean life. Across the British islands, historic stone Anglican churches are testament to the faith of early settlers, whose first priority was often to build a place of worship. Likewise, the Spanish and French islands all have ornate, ambitious Catholic churches or cathedrals that are as impressive architecturally as they are spiritually.
Few things are taken for granted in a region beset by hurricanes, storms, power outages and other assorted vagaries, but religion has endured. From Statia, a tiny Dutch island whose only gas station, owned by Seventh Day Adventists, closes from sundown on Friday, to Papal visits in Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Trinidad and so on, religion not only holds the region together, but constitutes a huge part of its history.
The first Catholic Mass was held over 500 years ago in Santo Domingo, and to date some sixty percent of the Caribbean population is Catholic. The oldest existing cathedral in the Caribbean is the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, Santo Domingo, built in 1540. This stunning building in the Colonial City is open for tours. The nearby El Faro de Colon, a 20th century architectural wonder, hosts the remains of Christopher Columbus. In neighboring Puerto Rico, the Caribbean’s second oldest cathedral in San Juan is the resting place of Ponce de Leon.
With Anglicanism the religion of the British settlers, most of the English-speaking islands have communities or parishes organized around quaint Anglican churches. A quarter of Caribbean residents are Protestant, with Adventist, Methodist and Baptist churches complementing the Anglicans. The first Anglican church in the Caribbean is a landmark celebrated by both St. Kitts and Nevis, the twin island federation that was the Leewards base for the British naval fleet. In Middle Island St Kitts you can visit the ruins of the old Anglican church, while St. Thomas’ in Nevis was built in 1643. Don’t leave Basseterre, St. Kitts without visiting the beautiful St. George’s, a lovely stone building that would not look out of place in an English country village.
Similarly, Barbados is dotted with wonderful historic churches. St. John’s was the oldest on the island, but the original buildings were destroyed by hurricanes and fires. The church that stands here today, however, is the final resting place of Ferdinando Paleologus, the last descendant of the brother of Constantine, the last Emperor of Constantinople. Other churches of note include the Cathedral in Paramaribo, Suriname. Construction began in 1883 and it remains the largest wooden structure in the Caribbean.
Although Judaism is currently practiced by less than one percent of Caribbean residents, there is a rich but turbulent history of Jews in the Caribbean. Fleeing persecution in Europe, many Jews settled in Curacao in the 17th century, encouraged to do so by the more tolerant Dutch. The Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Willemstad, Curacao, was first built in 1674 and is the oldest in the Americas. The floor covered with white sand is not a nod to local Caribbean topography, but rather evokes the 40 years spent in the desert. Back in Statia, the Honen Dalim Synagogue was built in 1739 by the island’s substantial community of Jewish merchants, but was destroyed by the British when they sacked Oranjestad. The ruins have recently been renovated by local historians.
With the influx of indentured labor to the southern Caribbean from India, Pakistan and Indonesia in the post-slavery era, Hinduism and Islam are firmly established in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname. There are over 80 mosques in Trinidad, including the impressive Maraval Mosque in Port of Spain. The Queenstown Jama Masjid in Guyana was built in 1895 and is now undergoing renovation. In Paramaribo, Suriname, the Arya Dewaker Hindu Temple was built at the turn of the 21st century and offers a spacious place of worship to the country’s Hindu population.
Clearly, no study of Caribbean religion would be complete without reference to the region’s most prominent beliefs – Rastafarianism and Voodoo. The former, although originally repressed in Jamaica, became popular from the 1930s onwards, and is now synonymous with Jamaican identity. Since Rastafarianism does not call for organized places of worship, there is not the legacy of temples and churches found in other religions, but Rastafarianism as a creed has permeated the entire Caribbean region.
Voodoo is usually linked to Haiti, where it first emerged out of a blend of West African practices. Again, the religious rites associated with voodoo do not require permanent places of worship, but the practice of voodoo – which is often wrongly trivialized in the media as a form of sorcery – is present not only in gatherings but also in shrines and offerings in the home.