Becoming Independent
The Founding of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Parish

August 1st, 2011
by Thomas Tomczyk


A blessing at the makeshift altar in front of the gatherer faithful

A blessing at the makeshift altar in front of the gatherer faithful

Bay Islands becomes independent from the mainland – in an ecumenical sense at least. On July 2, the Bay Islands Catholic community officially separated themselves from the parish in La Ceiba. In a ceremony at the ESBIR school in Coxen Hole, San Pedro Sula bishop Angel Garraciana named Father Fredy Cabrera as the parish head.

Currently the Bay Islands Catholics consists of 16 communities and eight temples: one on Utila East End, three on Guanaja: El Cayo, Savannah Bight, Armadores; four on Roatan: Corozal, Coxen Hole, French Harbour and Punta Gorda.

The oldest standing church is that in Coxen Hole. In total, Father Cabrera estimates that there are 4000 – 5000 practicing faithful in the “Immaculate Heart of Mary” parish.

History of Catholic Church in the Bay Islands

Representatives of the community of Punta Gorda celebrate the event

Representatives of the community of Punta Gorda celebrate the event

In early XVI century the catholic clergy from Trujillo played a significant role in the contacts between Spanish and Paya. By 1528, with the royal seal, the Archipelago de Las Guanajas, as Bay Islands were then known, was formally incorporated into the Province of Honduras.

In early XV century Franciscan Friars who were active in the vicinity of Trujillo most likely made their visit to the islands. Trujillo was the site of Honduras’ first Catholic Dioceses and Cristobal de Pedraza, its bishop, became known as “the protector of the Indians of Honduras.” It is likely that at that time a first priest was assigned to the Bay Islands or at least sent there periodically.

In Honduras, evangelization went slower than other parts of Latin America. Documents attest that by 1552, 10% of the entire Indian population in the province of Honduras were baptized.

In early 1600s Spanish documents mention “Christian Indians” of the Bay Islands and reported visit to the islands by two missionaries to acquire services of four Paya translators to work on the mainland. In 1639 an “Informe” by Avila y Lugo mentions Duch pirates who burned the four island towns – “churches first.” These mentioned buildings were most likely wooden and their location has never been determined.

Though this time the Bay Islands Paya were supplying port watchmen in Trujillo and by 1608 the town was getting almost its entire food products from Bay Islands.

After Spanish removed all Paya from Bay Islands in 1650 and the presence of the Catholic Church disappeared from the islands for almost 150 years.

This changed in 1797 with the arrival of Black Caribs or Garifuna, who were brought here from Saint Vincent. The British couldn’t control the Garifuna and marooned them on an uninhabited island of Roatan. The Spanish transferred most of the Garifuna to Trujillo, but some remained behind and likely formed a community on Roatan’s south shore, likely close to Carib Point.

Garifuna, aided by French in their struggle against the English, were Catholic and it is likely that the Garifuna community on Roatan received a periodical visit from catholic clergy from the mainland.

Some native sources tell of the Garifuna relocating from Carib Point to Punta Gorda area because the place offered a better place for agriculture.

From 1831, the eve of Cayman Islands migration to Bay Islands, until the first significant mainland migration in 1960s, only isolated Spanish families and the Garifuna continued to practice their Catholic Faith in the Bay Islands.

A mark of the growth of the community was when in 1988 padre Faro Vengoecheo, became the first modern Catholic missionary to be permanently based in the Bay Islands. In 1990s and after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 mare substantial group of Catholic migrated to the Bay Islands from the Mainland. In 2002 several Franciscan sisters of Immaculate Conception began charitable work from their base in Los Fuertes. [/private]

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