The main island of Tristan da Cunha prides itself on being the most remote inhabited island in the world. It takes up to two weeks to get there by sea from South Africa.
This gives the Catholic parish of St Joseph’s a claim to being the most remote parish on earth. It was thanks to Napoleon that life on the island began. When the defeated emperor was exiled to St Helena, the British sent a garrison to Tristan da Cunha as a precaution against a French attempt to liberate him. Pretty soon the government realised that the French weren’t coming, and even if they were, Tristan da Cunha was so far away that they certainly wouldn’t come from there. So the garrison was withdrawn. Some of the men stationed there sought leave to remain on the island, and thus the little settlement of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas was born.
The Catholic community on the island began with the arrival of a remarkable woman from Mullingar called Agnes Rogers, remembered today by islanders as Granny Aggie. She came to work as housekeeper for the island’s administrator. This devout soul was horrified to find no Catholic church and no sign of a priest ever having visited the island.
She came under enormous pressure to renounce her faith and simply conform to the majority religious practice. She refused and was treated appallingly by the authorities. The prejudice was such that, when food was scarce, she was even denied rations. Eventually, her stubborn love of her faith wore down the opposition and she established a small chapel in her home. The parish was born.
In 1932, Fr LH Barry was the first Catholic priest to visit Tristan (he was Catholic chaplain on HMS Carlisle). Aggie hadn’t seen a priest for 23 years. He reported that “She heard Mass and went to the Sacraments, and her joy was great and touching to see.” The next recorded visit of a priest was in 1955. He wrote: “On Tristan da Cunha, the world’s loneliest island, I heard the first Confession of children too young to remember what a priest looks like. They were better prepared than many of the children who live within sight of city churches.
“ ‘Did they do all right?’ Agnes Rogers anxiously asked me.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection