COVID Cripples Repairs to Trinidad’s Churches

Fr. Ronald Branche delivers a sermon at St. Margaret’s Church before the pandemic

By Melissa Williams-Sambrano

The Anglican Church in the Diocese of Trinidad and Tobago has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many churches around the world, the diocese in the twin-island nation has suffered losses, including the deaths of communicants. The diocese has also taken a financial blow because of the imposition of COVID restrictions, which stalled critical maintenance works on churches.

The nation of 1.3 million citizens has recorded just over 3,649 deaths since March 2020, when the first case of Coronavirus was reported. Strict lockdowns were imposed, which led to the temporary closure of some businesses and closed churches.

St. Margaret’s Church, Belmont, Trinidad

Virtual worship has certain drawbacks, said the Rev. Ronald Branche of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Belmont, Trinidad.

Branche, who has led the parish since October 2015, said virtual worship has crippled the church’s ability to raise funds for crucial projects such as the refurbishment and repair of infrastructure. St Margaret’s roof remains in dire need of repair.

“If people can see the thing at home, that means [parishioners] are not coming and they are not necessarily contributing,” Branche said.

The pandemic also meant that other revenue streams were cut, so compensating for the shortfall in offerings was also curtailed. Parish-hall rentals, a key income source for the church, have been inactive, Branche said.

“In 2019, every week I would have that hall rented out to dance groups on Tuesday and Thursday. I would have karate on Monday, you know, different activities that would bring in money,” he said. “All that gone.”

Almost two years ago, in an interview with The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, both Jason Gordon, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Port of Spain, and Anglican Bishop Claude Berkley expressed concern about a shortfall in revenue for Easter.

Gordon said that to combat this shortfall in revenue, his archdiocese was setting up a WePay account, as well as online banking facilities.

Other churches in the diocese were also heavily affected, among them the historic Holy Trinity Cathedral in the heart of the capital city.

The cathedral, more than 200 years old, is in dire need of restoration. In the last seven years, parts of the cathedral have crumbled because of seismic activity. A 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck in August 2018.

The Very Rev. Shelley-Ann Tenia, dean of the cathedral, said many fundraising efforts that would have helped generate the TT$70 million (about US$10 million) required for the works were scuttled by the pandemic. For now the cathedral’s doors are closed.

“Up to now, the church has not been able to gather even 10 percent of that. We have broken down the project into phases. We are focusing on phase-one emergency restoration work that is estimated to cost about TT$15 million.”

Many of the kinds of fundraisers we have are things that often require interaction and engagement, which is part of the challenge, said Tenia.

The pandemic also has harmed education. Branche cited a recent report showing that two Anglican primary schools in the Port of Spain are underperforming at the Secondary Entrance Examination level.

“I knew that shutting down for two years would have brought that kind of pressure,” Branche said. “We always hear about no child left behind, but I am sure that with this shutdown of two years, children are going to be left behind for years.”

Despite these many problems, the church has increased its outreach to the poor. “We have done more … in this time since the church shut down than we were doing before,” Branche said.

In May 2020, the government gave churches and faith-based organizations TT$30 million to help those in need. Branche said this money, as well as parishioners’ donations, helped the cause.

In January, Branche’s church joined with St. Francis Catholic Church in sponsoring outdoor evangelism.

The government announced that on March 7, places of worship could return to full capacity in all services.

Although taken by surprise, various religious bodies on the island welcomed the adjustment. They expressed the hope that members would return and not just renew their faith but play an important role in the financial revitalization of their churches, more so with Easter a few weeks away.

Melissa Williams-Sambrano is an Anglican journalist based in Trinidad and Tobago. She is also a wife and the mother of two boys.

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