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LA ROMAINE LAND GRAB: ONE PERCENT, CATHOLIC CHURCH, GOV’T MOVE TO DESTROY ST. BENEDICT’S COLLEGE by Laurence Brown

posted 20 May 2019, 08:19 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 20 May 2019, 08:34 ]
Laurence Brown
In September of 1956, there was a significant development in what was the marginalized Hamlet/Village of La Romaine, South Trinidad. This tiny settlement, a legacy of European Colonialism and its attendant exploitative systems of Slavery and Indentureship, was about to be placed on the National Radar.


Driven by his passion for learning/ education and a vision for making this ideal accessible to the children of the poor and dispossessed, DOM BASIL MATTHEWS set about the establishment of the Community styled Boys Secondary School of ST. BENEDICT'S COLLEGE LA ROMAINE.

The unique curriculum of Dom Basil's brainchild, in essence, was to ensure that it became the very first COMPREHENSIVE Secondary School in the then Colony of Trinidad and Tobago.

In order to realize his dream of educating the children of the poor classes in the South of Trinidad and Tobago, Dom Basil Matthews was able to convince the landowning LUCKY family of the La Romaine area to make available portions of their considerable holdings to house (1) The proposed physical structure of the College (the current location), which also accommodated the La Romaine R.C Primary School; (2) A piece of land on which stood a Colonial type building to house priests along with himself, on which spot the current La Romaine R.C Church stands; (3) A piece of land on the Gulf of Paria coastline for the establishment of a playing field, which became known as COLLEGE COMMONS LAROMAINE- ON-SEA.

Having taken vows of poverty as a priest, these lands could not be vested in the name of Dom Basil Matthews and were therefore conveyed into the hands of the CORPORATION SOLE of the local Catholic Church, COUNT FINBAR RYAN, the Archbishop of the diocese of Port of Spain.

The first indication that the Dom's vision and concern for the children outside the fold of the established privileged and elite was not necessarily aligned with that of the local Church, came when his request to establish his brainchild of a college, was not acceded to by the hierarchy of the local Catholic Church.

Not to be daunted however, Dom Basil Matthews literally went over the heads of the local Archdiocese and presented his case directly to the HOLY SEE at the VATICAN in ROME. The visionary Dominican Priest not only succeeded in obtaining the blessings of the VATICAN, but also a sum of money which would go a long way in helping him establish his dream.

This development not only ensured the construction/establishment of St. Benedict's College La Romaine, making it to this day the only
VATICAN assisted College in the English speaking Caribbean, but fomented deep rooted resentment within the chambers of the historically upper class aligned local church: a development which in the ensuing years would haunt both Dom Basil Matthews St. Benedict's College La Romaine.


NATIONAL PROMINENCE 


In recognition of the fact that he was coming from behind in terms of capturing national attention along the lines of the established colleges of privilege, Dom Basil Matthews drew upon his experience garnered in the U.S.A. and utilised sports, particularly (his passion) Football, as the launch pad to catapult St. Benedict's College into the hearts and minds of the national community, with emphasis on the young men he sought to attract to his newly established educational institution.

As part of his strategy, in contrast to the practice of the established secondary institutions which more or less concentrated on the recruitment of young students from middle and upper class backgrounds, Dom Basil opened the doors of the college to talented young men from lower class communities in the South and Deep South, to create and develop the formidable and feared St. Benedict's College Football Teams of the 1950's and 1960's, which in turn ushered in a golden era of national football. This never sat well with the status quo of the ruling elite, of which the Catholic Church was an integral part,


THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK 


In 1967, at about the time when Dom Basil was poised to guide St. Benedict's College into its great leap forward as the foremost all-round Secondary School of the era, disaster struck. The long deep-seated resentment and class contradictions manifested in open conflict, and Dom Basil Matthews was unceremoniously deposed as leader of the college of which he was the founding father. He was deemed to be a person no longer suitable to be a man of the cloth on the strength of rather spurious allegations. Thus began the slide down the slippery slope for the 'college of the poor people'.

The College was openly treated as a poor distant relation of the local church. Little or nothing was done to enhance the original infrastructure of the College; football was initially banished by the incoming leadership, the College Commons La Romaine-on-sea was put up for sale, an act which was successfully challenged by the College ALUMNI who came to be known as the 'Dom Basil Boys'.

The famous Benedicts football team. 1967
This group of Past Students which had been formalised in the early 1960's as the St. Benedict's College Past Students Association, was galvanized into action and publicly and aggressively confronted the then College authorities and the Church, on the unprincipled proposed sale of the COLLEGE COMMONS LA ROMAINE-ON-SEA, in the mid 1970's. Even as the College authorities and the Church were forced to retreat on the issue, their agenda remained intact and the facility was virtually left to rot, with the apparent intention to deliberately rundown same in order to justify sale at a later date.


In the early 1970's, as a direct result of the ARAB Contrived dramatic hike in World Oil Prices, the then Government of Trinidad and Tobago benefited from an unexpected and unprecedented OIL BOOM. The country was awash with oil dollars, with South Trinidad the Island's Oil Belt becoming focal to the country's development.

All lands along the Western Gulf of Paria Coastline between Point Fortin and San Fernando, witnessed a steep appreciation in worth and subject to obscene speculation. The lands between Coconut Drive (Green Acres), heading South from San Fernando along the Bye Pass, rapidly transformed into Gulf City Mall and Gulf View upscale residential holdings.

This also signalled the beginning of the end for St. Benedict's College La Romaine at its long established site, as well as its Playfield College Commons LA ROMAINE-ON-SEA on the coastline. All three parcels of property i.e.: College Commons; the Manse which housed Priests; and the site of the college, which at the initiative of Dom Basil Matthews, was in 1953 vested into the hands of the Corporation Sole of the Roman Catholic Church, now became objects of SPECULATION and a potential source of great wealth for the CHURCH, with reports of lands within said locations bordering upon four hundred dollars per square foot.

In all the opulence ushered in by oil wealth to the areas surrounding the three named properties, the physical structure of St. Benedict's College itself and the Commons, retained the state of dereliction arising out of endemic neglect by the Church, and is to this date a manifestation of what it is to be a 'poor distant relation' of the Church. This, in sharp contrast to the modern well kept structure of the La Romaine R.C Church and Parish Hall, on the site of the original manse housing Dom Basil Matthews and other priests.

It was during the first incarnation of a UNC Government led by Basdeo Panday, there arose unconfirmed reports of a deal being struck between the Roman Catholic Church and the then UNC Government (with the big business elite discreetly orchestrating), whereby the Government would swap fifteen acres of Leased State Lands (Caroni Ltd), on the M2 RING ROAD, for the site of St. Benedict's College as well as the College Commons La Romaine-on-sea. Following the tied elections and the seat of Government being handed to incoming Prime Minister Patrick Manning, talk of swap subsided, however there were persistent and consistent rumours of the College Common's being sold or of such a sale being in the making.

By January 2019, emanating from reports out of the Catholic Church via its newsletter, the St. Benedict's College Past Students Association was engaged in discussions with the La Romaine Parish Priest about the rumoured relocation of the College. At these meetings no definitive information was forthcoming to the association; there were vague reports of an offer being extended by the Government to the Church on the one hand and a request being made by the Church on the other hand.

As the Ex Pupil Body during discussions insisted upon transparency and full disclosure, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago played its hand. By way of correspondence captioned AGR: 24/17/2 Vol. IV, dated February 25, 2019 addressed to 'The Most Reverend
Archbishop Jason Gordon
Charles Jason Gordon; Archbishop of Port of Spain”
; re Grant of an institutional lease to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Port of Spain in respect of a fifteen (15) acre Parcel of State Land (former Caroni (1975) Limited Land), situate at La Fortune Estate, South Trunk Road, La Romaine for the relocation of the St. Benedict's College La Romaine.


The letter went on to advise that “Cabinet has approved the grant of an institutional lease to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Port of Spain, for the relocation of the St. Benedict's College, La Romaine." This piece of correspondence which makes no mention of College Commons La Romaine-On-Sea is the clearest indication yet that it is a done deal and has been so prior to the Past Students Association being invited to discussions with representatives of the Church.

DECEIT AND DECEPTION 


At all meetings with representatives of the Church, the St. Benedict's Alumni carefully outlined its objections to the apparent agreement, viewing it as the desecration of the Heritage Site that is St. Benedict's College, and its unique relationship with the COMMUNITY of La Romaine.

The Church, for its part, decried the dilapidated state of the College while not accepting responsibility for same; in addition citing some damage resulting from the earthquake one year ago, as its main reasons for the relocation of the College. The Church steadfastly refused to entertain the argument that the College can be rebuilt over time on the very spot it has occupied since 1956, citing lack of space and possible displacement of students.

Notwithstanding the fact that since the relocation of the Catholic Primary School many years ago, additional space was made available along with the fact that many schools were rebuilt on less space than the College currently occupies, and the reality that there was always the option of having taller structures, the Church insisted that the current site was no longer suitable for the needs of the College.

All this in face of a preliminary assessment of the project undertaken, whereby it was made clear that due to the nature of the soil structure and lay of the land along the proposed M2 RING ROAD, the costing of such a project would run into hundreds of millions of dollars, with excavation and foundation responsible for a large portion of the cost. In this regard it was outlined that it would be cost effective to upgrade the college at its present site on a phased basis, while at the same time maintaining the Community College Status of St. Benedict's College.

Every reasonable argument raised by the Alumni was rejected out of hand by the Church Representatives, in a most hasty and arrogant manner, suggesting that there was much more in the mortar than the pestle.

Dom Basil Matthews
It has always been the position of the Ex-Student Body that it is willing to work with the Catholic Church Authorities toward enhancing the conditions of the School for the benefit of current and future students, as well as the PEOPLE of La Romaine with whom the name St. Benedict's College is synonymous. As the Church Authorities baulked at every attempt to keep the legacy of Dom Basil Matthews and St. Benedict's College intact, it became quite clear that the move to relocate the school has its origins not in what is best for the school, but the ongoing grab for prime commercial property on which the College sits, with huge monetary gain for the entity in which the property is vested.


The intrigue continues as throughout discussions on the proposed relocation, despite the probing of the Alumni, authorities were unable to advise where the funding for such a large undertaking would be forthcoming. As a matter of fact the representatives of the Church were quick to admit that the Church was not in a position to finance such a project. At the same time the Government has gone on record as being cash strapped and in no position to embark on such a costly project.

This being the case, the question was repeatedly posed as to the financing of the building and relocation exercise with no positive response from the key players. In apparent response to increasingly vocal and public statements by the Ex-Students, a new unconfirmed report has surfaced, whereby the sitting Government has assured the Church that it will absorb the Construction/Relocation costs.

This development, if it is indeed factual, tends to suggest that the stakes in terms of acquisition of the PRIME commercial property on which the College stands, have risen sharply and the true movers and shakers are moving swiftly to have the sweet heart deal legally tied up before the upcoming general elections exercise, when there is a possibility that all can be lost.

The welfare of St. Benedict's College and its Student population comes before ALL. In the period commencing 1967 when Dom Basil was ousted as Principal of the College he founded, to the present day, there has been nothing to suggest that the College ever received the attention it deserved from both the Roman Catholic Church and a succession of Governments. Given this history of inattention and neglect, the current flurry of activity concerning the School cannot be viewed as a sudden acquisition of conscience, but rather the lure of monetary gain, with St. Benedict's College being once more thrown under the bus.

The Catholic Church, along with the sitting Government, must rethink its position and ensure that St. Benedict's College which is an integral part of the community of La Romaine, not only maintains its current location, but also proceed
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