Fr. Lambert St Rose – Priest and Poet

Fr. Lambert St Rose is a Catholic priest from St Lucia who has been serving in his homeland for the past 24 years.  To the delight of his many admirers he has just published a book of narrative prose and poetry – Helen and her Sister Haiti. He presents it as a “theological reflection on the social, historical, economic, religious, political, and national consciousness,” as it relates to the Caribbean, with a particular focus on St Lucia (also known as “Helen of the West Indies”). Although the majority of the poems have a St. Lucian setting, there is an unmistakable allusion to Haiti – not surprising considering that the two islands share a similar history of slavery, resistance and rebellion in their struggle for liberation. They’re also connected by the Kwéyòl  language, St Lucia having changed hands between the French and the British 14 times during the 17th and 18th centuries.

In order to fully grasp the intent of Fr. St Rose’s work, you must first understand the nature of the man and his theology. A graduate of the Regional Seminary of St. John Vianney in Trinidad, he holds a Masters in Theological Studies (MThs) from St. Norbert’s College, De Pere Wisconsin, with a year’s stint at Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in Chicago. He co-authored Theology in the Caribbean (1994) and Into the Deep, Towards a Caribbean Theology (1995).

Deeply spiritual, and a skilful orator, he is known to be very outspoken and not afraid to speak out against the oppression of the poor and other forms of social injustice, even at the risk of ruffling feathers in high places.

Lately he was diagnosed with a heart ailment which has rendered him unable to serve from the pulpit, much to the chagrin of his parishioners. Although it has slowed him down physically, it did not extinguish the passion for social justice which burns like a fire in his belly.

The introduction to Helen and her Sister Haiti encapsulates his sentiments. He identifies strongly with the sentiments of Pope Paul VI who, on a visit to Africa, reminded missionaries serving on the continent that it was not their duty to Christianize Africa but to Africanize Christianity by doing everything in their power to preserve the African culture in their liturgy and theology.

Father St Rose believes that in seeking to commune with God, one shouldn’t feel compelled to deny one’s heritage and culture, or feel ashamed of one’s past.

Comparing the Caribbean Diaspora to the nation of Israel – a people noted for their deep-seated pride in their ancestry, and a penchant for memorializing their past – he maintains that it’s important for Caribbean people to embark upon a reflection on Christianity within the context of the Caribbean in order to cultivate a theology that is authentic and reflects their own history, symbolic language  and culture. It should also move them to show appreciation for the struggles of their ancestors by memorializing them. It’s a theology that sees the workings of God in the history of the Caribbean people, and acknowledges the richness inherent in all cultures, including those of the West Indies.

On that point he is unequivocal. “Our narrative as Caribbean people does not start in the Caribbean; it must start in the land of our origin. Hence the need for Caribbean people to develop a uniquely Caribbean theology. We must hold sacred in our collective memories our fathers’ journey from Africa and East India. We cannot be indifferent nor can we afford the luxury of forgetting their plight, and their suffering, in the Caribbean, when the Caribbean was their Egypt and their Babylonian experience … Our narrative must embrace our total life’s journey and bring us to the point where we are at present. Unless we do so, we are not showing appreciation for what they endured.”

In his book, the poem I am my Ancestors’ Face underscores those sentiments.

We are the progeny of many felled trees

of the massive jungle of Ham’s land.

Like Pòyé our seeds germinate,

Our saplings grow where we are planted.

We reproduce our own specie

In the rhythm of the wind we find our traditions;

millenniums come and go,

we sing their songs,

we dance their dance.

We dance for our fallen fathers.

For the song we sing,

the dance we dance is their own, our tradition.

Fr.  St. Rose believes that a new form of slavery is creeping into the post-independent Caribbean and it disturbs him. He sees signs that the region has lost its way morally and spiritually, and, to a large extent, has lost its memory of the harrowing journey from slavery and colonization to independence. Under the influence of the “Ahabs and Jezebels” among them, and swayed by political corruption and deception, a host of social ills and injustice has taken root and, once again, the people are yearning for deliverance.

“Partisanship over patriotism is reshaping the consciousness of this generation. The new Massas are poised to replace the old Massas of the colonial days. Our countries are becoming their personal estates. Tribalism is rapidly becoming the order of the day … we encounter many Ahabs and Jezebels demanding total submission at all cost. They are willing to silence even God himself, restrict the voice of the Holy Spirit and more so the voice of the prophets in preference for half truths.”

In Helen and Haiti, “two diamonds in the rough with tremendous potential,” he finds justification for his misgivings in the way they have been wounded and disfigured by colonization and their post independence experience. In the latter case he views the wounds as having been self inflicted at the hands of “own sons and daughters and their apparatchiks, bereft of national pride, with a preference for partisanship.”  His vision of the future, however, is by no means a dark one. He calls for conversion, reconciliation and forgiveness and makes a heartfelt plea for a return to national pride.

Helen and Her Sister Haiti emerged out of his need to confront those stark realities by exploring the islands’ post-colonial histories and their traumatic rite of passage through to nationhood. In the process he assumes the posture of the Israelite prophets Jeremiah and Amos.

Jeremiah who lived during the penultimate and most crucial period of Judea’s existence as a kingdom, foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem as an independent state and the razing of its temple, after he had continuously warned his people to mend their ways and curb the wave of spiritual depravity and moral degeneration which was threatening to engulf the nation, before it was too late.  Even as he lamented the terrible fate that eventually befell Judea after its destruction by Babylon in approximately 607 BCE (recorded in the Book of Lamentations) Jeremiah went to the exiled tribes of Israel to encourage them and give them hope by showing them the path that would lead to restoration and redemption.

Amos, in turn, lived in the eighth century BC in the Northern Kingdom of Israel when it was at the height of economic prosperity, a time marked by social injustice and religious and political corruption by a ruling class that “trampled the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” (Amos 2:7). Amos echoes the lamentations of the sufferers and exposes the rulers’ reckless extravagance and their indifference to the people’s suffering. He calls for justice and righteousness.

Convinced that there are many similarities between the Israelite narrative and that of West Indians in the Diaspora, Fr. St Rose proceeds to chronicle his insights and perceptions using free verse in a form that pulsates with the cadence of speech and reflects the sensibilities and rhythms of the Caribbean.  He weaves a tapestry of religious imagery infused with Creole folklore, Greek mythology and poignant social commentary.

The book is comprised of 10 sections – Presenting Helen, Welcoming the Ancestors, Agony, Duplicity, Hope and Redemption, Values, Family and Friends, Emotions, Nature and Hope. Part I of the collection pays homage to the natural beauty of his native St. Lucia in a praise song to Helen. It also captures the island’s rich, vibrant African and European heritage, which is later reflected in the fecund culture and landscape of the wider Caribbean. It also traces the social and political evolution of the region, exploring the timeless themes of West Indian identity, independence, neo-colonialism, politics and modernization. It employs the protest-poetry genre to capture and decry the social ills that continue to afflict the islands in the 21st Century.  Protest poetry is popular in South Africa where its rise coincided with the advent of the grass-roots anti-Apartheid activist movement, Black Consciousness led by the martyred Steve Biko, and it became a powerful vehicle of protest during the 1976 Soweto Uprisings.

World-renowned St. Lucian artist and muralist Sir Dunstan St Omer painted the piece which graces the cover of the book. It’s the acclaimed Holy Family Mural at the Church of the Holy Family at Jacmel, Roseau. St Omer designed St Lucia’s National Flag and his murals grace the altars of many St Lucian churches.

Commenting on the book, Fr. Patrick Anthony, director of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Centre and founder of the St Lucia Folk Research Centre said, “The priest and poet is an ancient Catholic tradition. Fr Lambert’s collection of poems is structured meticulously to illustrate literally, the journey of St. Lucia’s struggles, our failings, our mistakes, our hopelessness but eventually our hope.”

In his article Priests and the Power of Poetry, American cleric Father Dwight Longenecker noted: “Poetry is important to the priest because poetry is naturally sacramental in its ambition.”

Helen and her Sister Haiti bears testimony to this.

It’s available at Amazon.com and all other major online bookstores.

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5 responses to “Fr. Lambert St Rose – Priest and Poet

  1. Pingback: St. Lucia: Poetic Preaching · Global Voices·

  2. Pingback: “The Church must not seek to Christianise Africans …” — an interview with Fr. Lambert St Rose, priest and poet « Caribbean Book Blog·

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