A brief history of the past 50 years 1950 - 2000

St. Bernadette's Hostel
by Sister Rose Magdalene, O. Carm.
Guyana Chronicle
April 30, 2000

FIFTY years ago, many young girls starting out in life found that in most cases they were unable to earn enough money to pay for their necessary living expenses.

Many of them were not qualified for well-paid jobs. Some were orphans with no immediate family and few real friends. Others had to contribute to the upkeep of younger brothers and sisters and in one case a bed-ridden grandmother.

Many of the girls were from country areas like Beriberi, Essequibo, the Pomeroon River and the East Coast of Demerara, where jobs were few and far between. These problems forced them to seek employment and suitable lodging in Georgetown, exposing them to exploitation by unscrupulous employers.

Other girls had spent many years in St. Ann's Orphanage, and on reaching the age where they had to leave, had no place to go. They were willing to work, but needed help.

The Ladies of Charity, at that time headed by Ms Cecelia Gomes, recognised this tremendous need and did something about it.

The idea of a hostel for young working girls was just thought of by Reverend Father Fenn, S.J. who prompted the `Sword of the Spirit' to take action. Formerly a small house on Croal Street, run by the Ladies of Charity, housed a few girls under a matron.

The hostel project began with the purchase of a piece of property at 105 Lamaha Street, through generous terms offered by G. A. Gomes Ltd. Finance for this building came from Mr John Fernandes Snr., who donated his monthly salary from the then Legislative Council to the hostel. A large raffle was organised by Mr Jorge Jardim, a fair was held by the Sword of the Spirit and an appeal was made to commercial houses and the public in general.

Work on the hostel was started in 1949, the contractors were Wilson and Clarke.

As to the actual material setting up of the building, gratitude must go to the family of G. A. Gomes who gave the Ladies of Charity the site for the same price for which it was originally acquired; to Mr John Fernandes and family and to those who loaned money without interest.

Mr John Fernandes who was always interested in bringing the Carmelite Sisters from Trinidad to take charge of a hostel for working girls, contacted the then Mother General, Mother Mary of the Blessed Sacrament Elerker, first by letter then made a visit to Trinidad and personally made an appeal for the Sisters to come to Guyana.

Prior to that, however, Reverend Father Ellis S. J. had invited the Sisters to work on the Corentyne Coast, Beriberi, where he was parish priest. If they were able to have a place in Georgetown they said, where the Sisters could recuperate in case of illness, then this would be possible.

To the Ladies of Charity, this was a God send and to the Carmelite Sisters an opportunity to extend their work to Guyana.

After this, everything seemed to fall into place so easily and quickly, it was obvious that the hostel had God's blessing.

In spite of many difficulties which are still evident today, St. Bernadette's Hostel continues to do the work it began 50 years ago.

On February 11, 1950, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the hostel was blessed by Bishop George Weld S. J. It was the Marian year.

The work on the building was not yet completed, but the then Mother General, Mother Teresa Johnson, and Mother Rita de Souza, the first elected superior - herself a Guyanese - came to Guyana to be present at the Blessing, and stayed on with the Sisters of Mercy in their Convent in Charlestown.

On the Feast of St. Valentine 1950, Sister Rose Magdalene arrived from Trinidad, and two days later, Sisters Mary Xavier de Cambra and Sister Mary of the Visitation. These three Sisters and Mother Rita de Souza formed the first Carmelite Community in Guyana.

Home away from home

On February 18, 1950, the Feast of St. Bernadette, the hostel was formerly opened. Many relatives and friends attended this function and took the opportunity to view the facilities offered to the girls and to wish the Sisters success in their new venture.

Some days after, the first girls arrived - 11 of them plus two dogs, Bonzo and Rex. One of the 11 was Lorna Francis now Sister Ambrose, currently working in the South of Trinidad.

Very soon after the arrival of the first group of girls, the hostel was filled to capacity and has remained that way ever since. There is always a long waiting list, all needy cases, but unfortunately all cannot be accommodated.

The hostel is meant to be a `home away from home' and the Sisters, by their example, inspired the girls to become God-fearing women, loyal citizens and good mothers in the community.

There is no discrimination as to race or creed, but all are urge to be faithful to whatever religion they belong.

Besides seeing to the needs and welfare of the girls, the Sisters were invited to teach Catechism in several parishes which included Fatima, Peters Hall; Victoria, East Coast Demerara; Malgre Tout, Lodge, St. Thomas Moore Primary School and later in Linden.

Since 1950 the hostel has had six Guyanese Superiors, Mother Rita de Souza, Sister Mary Xavier de Cambra, Sister Teresa Winifrede Fernandes, Sister Ignatius Fernandes who served two terms of office, Sister Carmencita Correia who also served two terms, and presently Sister Amadeus Nicholas. Sister Assumpta Tang and Sister Anne Marie Gomes were both from Trinidad.

St Bernadette's Hostel provides and encourages opportunities for growth and progress. Several girls have been encouraged to improve their education by attending Adult Education classes, taking courses in handicraft e.g. flower arranging, cake decorating, typing and shorthand and hair dressing. The girls are free to study, recreate, read and write. They are allowed to attend shows and parties in moderation. Like every other organisation, there are necessary rules and regulations to be observed by all in residence. Visitors of both sexes are allowed.

To quote one of the girls, Jean Yahya: "We are grateful to the Sisters and all those who, by their generosity, hard work and sacrifice made St Bernadette's Hostel, a home away from home. The solid foundation of guidance, love and kindness prepare the girls for the time when they leave the hostel and will have to fend for themselves. However, we are confident of the sincere interest the Sisters have in us. Deep in our hearts we will always cherish happy memories of St. Bernadette's."

At present there are 28 girls in residence from many parts of Guyana, of different backgrounds, religions and cultures, but they are encouraged to live as one family. Some are student nurses, teachers, accountants, salesgirls and typists. Others are studying at the University of Guyana and several attend adult classes after work.

Today, we look back with grateful hearts over 50 years of work for the Lord. We thank Him for all the graces and blessings He has showered on us and look forward to new opportunities and challenges in the coming years.

The present Community of Sisters are Sister Amadeus Nicholas, Sister Ignatius Fernandes, Sister Jacinta Sookraj, Sister Angela Teresa Bacchus and Sister Rose Magdalene.

Besides the care of the girls in the hostel, these Sisters are engaged in other work in the community; catechetics, counselling and library work, the housing and caring of battered women and children, the training of children's choirs in the parishes and many others.

We pray that God will continue to bless us, expand our work and send us more vocations to the religious life.