Father Jerome’s Via Dolorosa

Giving Back

As travelers we are fortunate enough to be able to learn about foreign cultures, geographies, and histories, to visit the most beautiful natural sites and tourist attractions, to enjoy local arts, foods and entertainments, to meet many interesting people, and generally to have lots of fun and good time everywhere we go. But I started asking myself how can we give back to a place we are visiting, a place we are taking so much from? Is spending money (for food, transportation, accommodation, and other necessities) enough to support local economies and to make us, travelers, feel we are not exploiting a place and its people? And what if we don’t spend much money for anything when we travel, as in our case? We live on a boat always anchored out for free, don’t use fuel as we sail using the wind, we have solar panels to produce electricity and a watermaker to produce freshwater. We do our washing by hand, we fish a lot and make our own food with products we bought back form the US or the cheapest local ones, and we don’t need any new cloths, cell phones, furniture, cars. Well, there are many different ways to get involve and give back to places and peoples. Each one of us can figure such ways according to what is needed and what we are able to do. We figured, helping local people and cleaning polluted places is the best way to give back. Thus, everywhere we go we offer our help.

Father Jerome’s Via Dolorosa

We are travelers. The World is our address; the Sea our permanent residency. ‘Our Home is where the Boat is’, a sign hangs in the galley of our catamaran. We don’t spend much time in one place: we sail farther. We are driven by a need like an unquenchable thirst, like a curse, to find out what lies beyond the horizon. Yet, sometimes we pause. Sometimes we climb a ridge and look from the top of a mountain to see where we have come from and where we are going. 

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The distance between Little San Salvador and Cat Island is 34 nautical miles. We sail all day. It’s already dark when we drop anchor in the vast anchorage on the west lee side of the island.

The next day we grab a bottle of water and take to the hills. As we climb the 206-foot tall Mount Alvernia on Cat Island, the highest land elevation in all of the 700 Bahamian islands, I tell this story to my children:

Once upon a time there was an old hermit, a most unusual man, who lived alone in a stone home he built atop a hill. You might imagine that he was a very small man, maybe a midget, about four feet tall, for his house, which still crowns the hill, is so tiny. Everything in it: his sleeping quarters furnished with nothing but a simple plank bed taking up most of the space, the cloister with only three miniature columns leading to a guestroom where no more than one or two guests could fit, the little bell tower, and the chapel with its single pew where one must bend in order to fit through the door, resemble a child-size castle on top of a tiny mountain where a tiny person dwelled. But you know what? The resident of this place was in fact a very tall person, slender, with white beard and sad eyes, wearing a grey robe with a hood. Why do you suppose he built for himself such a small dwelling?

Inside the chapel.

Inside the chapel.

We keep going. It is a short but steep trek to the peak of Mount Alvernia. Visitors from all over the world come here not only to climb the Everest of the Bahamas, but also as a pilgrimage to Father Jerome’s final masterpiece: the Hermitage which he designed and built singlehandedly and where he spent the last 17 years of his life in solitude, as a poor person dedicated to seeking God through prayer, charity, and seclusion from society.

Hermitage on Mount Alvernia

Hermitage on Mount Alvernia

Born John Cyril Hawes in 1876 in England, he studied architecture and theology. At age 21 he was already a practicing building designer. At age 27 he became an Anglican priest. In 1909 John Hawes joined a mission in the Bahamas to restore local churches damaged by a great hurricane. After repairing various churches and building a few new ones, the architect-priest left the Bahamas and didn’t return until 1939, almost thirty years later. During that time he traveled to the United States where he converted to Roman Catholicism, then spent a few years as a homeless person and a wanderer traveling across North America by foot and even working as a laborer on the Canadian Pacific Railways, and then he sailed to Rome and was ordained a priest after two years of studies at The Beda College. He was then commissioned to go to Australia both as an outback missionary and a cathedral architect. He spent many years in Western Australia designing and building various churches, cathedrals, and chapels. In 1937, as recognition for his important work as a missionary priest and church builder, he received the papal title, monsignor. When he came back to Cat Island in the Bahamas he was an old man of 63. Everyone called him Father Jerome.

Father Jerome

Father Jerome

 

We reach the summit. The view from the top is spectacular. We see the entire Cat Island below: an evergreen scrubby mass of low tropical vegetation with small colorful houses strewn along the west coast bathed in crystal sunlight. The placid emerald-green waters of the sea to the west are calm and warm, home of coral gardens and fish. The roaring Atlantic to the east stretching all the way to Africa is deep, purple, mysterious. Up here the wind which never rests carries the songs of insects and birds, and the muffled prayers of an old hermit. Up here, inside the one-man monastery with its massive medieval-looking stone walls, we, atheists, feel the presence of the old hermit: a sudden nostalgic sensation of profound spirituality and awe.

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The grey stones of the walls constructed over the limestone dome of the hill following its curves in perfect harmony with the natural surroundings, and the white cupolas bright in the sun against the blue sky are perfect as a renaissance painting. Except for the cone-shaped dome of the belltower which is broken and crooked, a huge gash like a wound gaping on one side.

“What happened?” I ask a man mixing cement on the grass in front of the hermitage, rocks, sand, buckets, and instruments scattered about. Another man is working up on the tower.

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“A lightning strike it. There is a metal bell inside, so the lightning come and BAM, strike it! About a month ago. Worst damage ever since the hermitage was built”, he explains.

Cedric Wilson, a building contractor with over 45 years of experience specializing in church restoration, and Kirk Burrows, both Cat Islanders, are commissioned by the local Catholic Church to repair the damaged belltower.

Cedric Wilson

Cedric Wilson

We offer to help and they gladly accept.

“You see, we have to bring everything up here by hand, there is no other way”, Cedric explains.

Kirk Burrows

Kirk Burrows

We begin working the next day. A fellow sailor, Ben Rusi, also joins our little brigade.

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Cedric, Kirk, and Ivo building the scaffolding around the belltower.

Cedric, Kirk, and Ivo building the scaffolding around the belltower.

Every morning for about a week, we walk from the anchorage to the foot of Mount Alvernia where we find construction materials waiting for us to be hauled up. As we walk the narrow steep rocky path carrying buckets of sand and water, wooden planks and iron rods, I can’t help thinking of Father Jerome building the hermitage all by himself, stone by stone.

Kirk and Ivo mixing cement.

Kirk and Ivo mixing cement.

There, all along the path from the foot to the top of the hill, set among shadowy trees, he has placed large concrete bas-reliefs representing various Stations of the Cross, imaging Jesus carrying his cross on the way to his crucifixion along the Via Dolorosa: the Way of Suffering. The analogy is inevitable: Jesus struggling with the cross, Father Jerome building the hermitage, Cedric and Kirk fixing it, and now us too being part of it.

Ivo along "the Path of Suffering"

Ivo along „the Path of Suffering“

After a few days, the belltower is fixed, and we celebrate with a small picnic on the terrace of a closed-down restaurant on the beach. Cedric brings tomatoes from his garden, homemade citrus juice, and a big pot of thick chicken and potato soup his wife cooked for us. The bread I made in the morning is on us. The chicken soup is hot and rich and so tasty, it enters our list of Best Foods we Ever Had. We enjoy the food and the stories Cedric and Kirk share with us in the orange-and-blue afternoon on the beach.

At the end, the reward we receive for our hard labors, for our time spent helping those in need, is the ultimate one: it is the feeling of moral uplifting and spiritual inspiration achievable only through acts of selflessness and charity. It is the lesson that Father Jerome and his humble yet charming last dwelling taught our children: to enjoy life one doesn’t need a big house but a big heart.

Through our efforts to help repair the belltower we became forever connected to Father Jerome and his Hermitage, to the past and the present of Mount Alvernia, to the people of Cat Island, and to the history of the Bahamas.

The only inhabitant of the hermitage today is a small hermit-frog.

The only inhabitant of the hermitage today is a small hermit-frog.

Cat Islanders who told us stories and facts about Father Jerome

Deacon Andrew Burrows

One Saturday night last December there was a big storm. When the lightning hit, everything went black. The lights went down. The next day we found out that the belltower got struck. It is an act of Nature. It is also a wake-up call. Everyone uses the Hermitage, we have pictures of the Hermitage printed on Cat Island brochures to attract tourists. The Hermitage as a cultural and historical heritage is a resource we are using, but nobody maintains it. Yes, the lightning can be interpreted as a wake up call, to bring attention. 

Deacon Burrows in front of Holy Redeemer Catholic Church designed and built by Father Jerome.

Deacon Burrows in front of Holy Redeemer Catholic Church designed and built by Father Jerome

  He had a bell placed at the bottom of the hill. When people needed him they rang the bell and he would come down. He gave clothes, food, helped everyone as much as possible.  People came to him from Monday to Friday when they needed him. He preached the gospel but would help everyone regardless of their religion.

Father Jerome died on a June 26th. I was born June 26th.

Deacon Burrows during service, inside Holly Redeemer Church.

Deacon Burrows during service, inside Holly Redeemer Church.

Poompey

We have more churches than people in this town. Everyone wants to build their own church. Father Jerome built 5 churches on Cat Island and Long Island alone. But the Hermitage is where he lived for 17 years and he is buried up there too.

Poompey

Poompey

Paula Thurston

My mother, Katleen Thurston, used to take care of Father Jerome. She used to clean and cook and wash clothes for him. She was about thirty then, married, but she couldn’t have children. One day father Jerome put his hand on her shoulder and talked to her in Latin and blessed her. And told her, you will have a daughter. And that was me. I was blessed by Father Jerome. My mother didn’t have anymore children.

One morning, after it rained all night, my mother found him lying on the ground there. He fell down and hurt himself. It’s very steep and the rocks get slippery after rain. She found him and called people from the village and they called the C-plane. and they took him to Nassau, to the hospital. He returned after that but was not the same man. He died shortly after this incident.

Paula Thurston

Paula Thurston

Gladys McKenzie

I don’t know how old I am, I don’t remember. But I remember Father Jerome. Sure, I remember him. He was a nice man. He is buried under a rock in the ground, right there up on the hill. When he died I was a young woman. We all went to the funeral. Now everyone comes here and takes my picture, because I remember him. (She loughs.)

Gladys McKenzie, around 90-years-old

Gladys McKenzie, around 90-years-old

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The Star Of The Sea

In the beginning of this journey, 9 months ago, many asked us: What are you going to do about money? Many still ask us the same question. We ask them back: What do we need money for?

Sure, it’s a joke. We all need money for so many things. But if you think about it, we need a lot less money than most of you guys out there asking the question, just because we have less needs than you, and we also have a plethora of alternative ways to get what we need without money. We don’t buy stuff (clothes, shoes, furniture, gadgets, electronics, etc.) simply because we don’t have much use for them, nor space on the boat where to put them. The things we really needed in the beginning after we got the boat were: fibreglass, paint, water pumps, marine toilets repair kits, engine parts, filters, insulation for hatches, buckets, fishing gear, electronics, and charts. For these we did spend money from our savings but hopefully we will not have to buy them too often from now on. Other than that, we are all set.

We don’t pay rent. We drop an anchor somewhere close to shore: it’s free. We don’t have an electricity bill: we have solar panels. We don’t have a car: we have bicycles. We don’t have to pay for freshwater: we collect rainwater or we fill our tanks at the docks for free, and we even have a watermaker which produces freshwater from seawater. We don’t work and we don’t pay taxes.  We fish, we barter, we volunteer at farmers’ markets in exchange for  fruits and vegetables, we even volunteer at museums for free access to art! Everywhere we go, we find a way to „survive“ almost without money.

It has been 3 months now since we last entered a store to buy groceries. We get enough food for the four of us from the Stock Island food bank where we work as volunteers once a week for 2-3 hours. I give a tour to people who come for food and Ivo works in the back unloading crates and arranging them on the shelves. This is one of a very few choice-pantries where people walk through and choose the food they need, which is a much better option than getting two bags of groceries half of which they don’t need, like in most of the other ready-bags pantries.

A mother and a girl are choosing groceries at the SOS food bank

A mother and a girl are choosing groceries at the SOS food bank

The Star of the Sea Mission, or SOS for short, is truly the best food bank we ever came across, providing food, clothing, and services to underprivileged low-income families and individuals in Key West, serving over 90 people per day, providing 57, 000 pounds of food bags per month. Located in a small building on Stock Island, it reminds me more of a home than an institution. There are a few small rooms in the front: an office, a reception room, and a small store. In the back there is a big warehouse with lots of stored goods inside, and a huge backyard populated by well fed chickens, with wooden tables under a big tree where the workers rest and eat lunch and where trucks come and go. Lunch is usually prepared by Lobster Bob for everybody: a big meal with salad and desert.

Lunch time in the back yard of SOS food bank

Lunch time in the back yard of SOS food bank

People sign up in the office, wait for not more than 5 minutes in the reception room, and then go in the „store“ where they get to choose two canned goods from this rack, one item from that rack, one meat item from the freezer, two salads from the fridge, two breads, two deserts, two drinks, etc. It’s like shopping, only there is no cashier at the end. And some people take a looong time to choose. No hurry.

A volunteer at SOS food bank

A part-time volunteer at SOS food bank

These are low-income senior citizens, low-income families, and homeless families and individuals who can come once a week, any day, any time, as the SOS is open 5 days a week from 10 am to 5 pm. That is why there are never long lines of waiting people. Most of the other food banks we have seen operate in a church basement for a few hours once a week and people are forced to wait forever in stuffy waiting rooms.

But what makes this particular food bank so wonderfully unique in my mind is the staff, the people who work there.

Donna Knull runs the place since 7 years now.

Donna

Donna in the office of SOS food bank

„Some people resent feeding the homeless… They don’t like looking at them let alone feeding them.

I worked 16 years at a hardware store. Then I retired. But couldn’t stay at home doing nothing; I cannot not work. So I started volunteering here. And became director-manager. I wanted to do something I felt good about. To wake up in the morning and be happy to go to work. And here I got so much more back than I have given as a volunteer. This place made me compassionate and understanding of others.

I remember in the beginning, there was this homeless person who came for food and irritated me. We were giving ready-bags back then. She got the bag, looked in it and shoved it back at me, I don’t eat this! But now they don’t irritate me any more, and she is still coming every week. Now I give her a hug when I see her.

I see people walking the streets, sitting in parks, with dirty clothes and backpacks, and I recognize them. I know who they are and I feel good about myself for being able to help them…“

Raquel is second in charge. She receives people and deals with the files. Raquel came from Cuba in 2005.

„I came with my son, a two-year-old baby, in a tiny 12 feet boat. I would never do it again…

We were thirteen people in that boat. It took us three days and there was no food. It was so scary, water everywhere. At some point water started coming inside the boat. The men started putting things in the hole to block it. We managed to get to a small uninhabited island and then the boat sunk. My husband, who was already in the United States, came to pick us up and now we are here…

First, I worked in Orlando, housekeeping. Then we moved here. We lived on a houseboat for three years. I didn’t like it, it was hard…

I started working at the food bank. Not for money, I like to help people. I feel I do something important. Now we have a home. Only when you have a home you realise you can help others who don’t.“

Then, there are the permanent full-time workers: Chris, Lobster Bob, Louis and his girlfriend, and other guys who came from difficult situations: homeless, alcoholics, ex-convicts. Some came through offender programs, others just needed a safe place and a fresh start. For them, The Star of the Seas is truly a home.

Louis and his girlfriend both work as full-time volunteers at the SOS food bank

Louis and his girlfriend both work as full-time volunteers at the SOS food bank

“ This is my safe zone, says Louis who is on parole and needs to serve community hours. I used to drink a lot and get into trouble, and they would arrest me and put me in jail. But when I am here, I know I cannot be drunk, because these are the rules, and I work, and I get food and clothes. I know here I will not get into trouble. It’s my safe zone. Even after I finish my community hours I will keep coming and working here. I love it.“

For many, the food bank is a midway home, a sort of a purgatory, where they get ready for a better life. And Donna loves working with them. They even installed a tobacco machine where everyone can roll a cigarette any time, because, they figured, this will make everyone happier and will prevent people from stealing.

Lobster Bob, full time volunteer and community cook

Lobster Bob, full time volunteer and community cook

Chris is the soul of the place. With a German accent, Chris can tell you loud stories and jokes all day long. He was the first one who gave us a tour when we first came to pick up food and he thought us how to arrange the bread on the shelves, how to walk people through, how to treat them and be careful and all.

Chris, resident, full time worker, and   the "soul" of SOS food bank

Chris, resident, full time worker, and the „soul“ of SOS food bank

And finally, there are the part-time volunteers, mostly retired ladies and gentlemen who come to help once a week, or people like us who like to give back to those who have given them so much. Thank you, Donna, Rachel, Chris, and all you guys at The Star of the Sea Mission! You have made a huge difference for our family!

 

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Volunteering at The Dali Museum

Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality. 

 

– André Breton, The Surrealist Manifesto 

Not too long ago, I wrote about our Saturday Market volunteering career in Saint Pete:

For about two hours each Saturday, we used to help a merchant to load his produce on a truck, and, as a token of his appreciation, he used to give us one thousand pineapples.

(For a more detailed and truthful account of these events, read  The Pineapple Volunteers)

At about the same time as we found a way to fill our bellies with vital vitamins free of charge, I also found a way to satisfy my hunger for culture and art (also free of charge). I became an active volunteer at the new Dali Museum in Saint Petersburg Florida in order to gain access to the galleries, as well as numerous events and lectures. (Apparently, there is no Green Card or any other type of work permit required if one, no matter from which country of the world, is willing to work without remuneration in the United States. Only a background check is required.)

Me running away from the Dali Museum, Saint Petersburg

Mira running away from the Dali Museum, Saint Petersburg, Florida

Salvador Dali, my favourite artist as a child when I was somewhere between Maya’s and Viktor’s age, had a great influence on me. Looking at the colour reproductions of his paintings in a book, I remember feeling the presence of the marvellous, the magical, the outrageous, the paranoiac. When I found out that a museum full of his paintings is just under my nose, I had to do something about it. And I did the right thing, I became part of it. I volunteered.

The museum opened doors in 2011.

„Designed by architect Yann Weymouth of HOK, the new building combines the rational with the fantastical: a simple rectangle with 18-inch thick hurricane-proof walls out of which erupts a large free-form geodesic glass bubble known as the „enigma.“ The „enigma,“ which is made up of 1062 triangular pieces of glass, stands 75 feet at its tallest point, a twenty-first century homage to the dome that adorns Dali’s museum in Spain. Inside, the Dali houses another unique architectural feature – a helical staircase – recalling Dali’s obsession with spirals and the double helical shape of the DNA molecule.“

http://thedali.org/about_the_museum/the_building.php

Via an internet volunteering system, I choose my days and hours of work, about 2-3 hours a week. My job is distributing headphones to visitors on the first floor next to the gift shop.

Hi, would you like a headphone? I need one ID for each adult. No, I can’t take your credit card instead. Press 1 and the play button for general information about the museum and the collection. Each painting has a number on a label beside it. Press that number and the play button again for more information on that painting. All the galleries are on the third floor. There is a guided tour as well every hour. You can take the stairs or the elevator. The restrooms are just around the corner. You can also watch a 7 minute film in the theatre here on the first floor, it’s free and it plays every 15 minutes. Enjoy!

They take the stairs or the elevator and up they go to the third floor. They return to take back their IDs. We keep them in alphabetical order.

What is your last name? Here you go.

I collect the headphones and place them on a rack to charge the batteries. Sometimes, I listen to the recording punching random numbers. A woman’s voice talks about paintings I don’t see. I haven’t been on the third floor yet. I have no idea how the little labels with the numbers on them look like. Only when I accumulate a total of 8 hours of work I will become a member of the museum with free access to the galleries, events, and lectures.

Two weeks pass.

My two-hour shift is almost finished. This makes exactly eight hours total. I gently place a set of headphones on my head. I take the elevator or the stairs. I burst into an open door and there is a painting before me. And I realize then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since, I am looking at a canvas touched by Salvador Dali. The painting is literally a record of the painter’s hallucinations. His body, which was there, touched the canvas which radiations ultimately touch me, who am here, like the delayed rays of a star.

I will not spend one hour rushing through the galleries consuming all 96 paintings at once, unable to digest them. I will take one at a time, savour it, enter it, let it melt slowly before swallowing it. I can visit the galleries every day if I want to, and spend time with one painting at a time. I can also borrow and take home books from the shelves of the volunteering office, all about Dali and his art, Surrealism, as well as other painters, photographers, and art movements. I can also attend all sorts of events, lectures, and shows, some of which are for members only and a guest. And I did take advantage of everything! I borrowed a book on double images, where Maya learned about Dali, as well as Archimbaldo’s portraits made out of fruits or fishes; with Maya we attended a lecture about Tattoo art and Dali; another lecture on Salvador Dali’s childhood and early years; and an opening of an exhibition, members only, including a theatre performance, wine, and buffet. It was amazing!

There are volunteer opportunities in almost every museum or art centre in America, and I was considering signing up at the Ringling Museum, after we moved from Saint Petersburg to Sarasota. For me this is a perfect option to stay connected to art and culture, to learn, and to become involved with the local art scene in the places we visit when we are not in a hurry.

Mira. SurrealIn front of The Dali Museum, before a member-only event

Mira. Surreal
In front of The Dali Museum, before a members-only exhibition openning

 notes, inspirations, web sites:

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

The Dali Museum website: http://thedali.org/home.php

Andre, Breton, First Surrealist Manifesto:   http://www.tcf.ua.edu/Classes/Jbutler/T340/F98/SurrealistManifesto.htm

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