Historic Conflict Yields To Catholic Quietude

The history of the Catholic faith in the Falkland Islands is long, colorful — and not without its share of strife.

After being claimed for the British crown in 1690, and named for Viscount Falkland, treasurer of the British Navy, the South Atlantic islands were colonized by the French in 1764. On Feb. 3 of that year, 60 colonists arrived and established a settlement for King Louis XV, calling it Fort St. Louis. Among them was a Benedictine monk, Dom Antoine Joseph Pernetty. He created a chapel by screening off part of the main building.     

Three years later, France handed over the settlement to Spain. The Spanish built a small, temporary church, naming it Nuestra Senora de la Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude) after a shrine in their homeland. This they replaced with a larger, permanent sanctuary in 1801.

In 1810, Spanish jurisdiction in the Falkland Islands came to an end and was followed by a period of confusion and lawlessness. On Nov. 6, 1820, Argentina took possession of the Falklands (which consist of two large islands and some 200 small ones) but was unable to bring order to the area.

Britain re-entered the scene in 1833, restoring royal order to the islands and declaring Stanley the capital. Then entered a long period of challenges for the Catholics, not least among them a shortage of priests. This was frequently alleviated by the generosity of missionary priests, many of them Irish missionaries who split their time between the Falklands, Argentina and Chile.

The instability did not stop the Catholics from building a new church and dedicating it to the Mother of God. St. Mary’s was inaugurated by a missionary priest on June 15, 1873. Eventually a parish priest in England, Father James Foran, volunteered to go to the Falklands. He ended up serving there from 1875 until 1886.

In 1885, the parishioners of St. Mary’s Catholic Church decided to build a new structure to meet their growing needs. The first Mass was said in the new church in 1886. In 1899, a third and larger church was built alongside it; the second church was (and still is) used as a parish hall.

Fast-forward to 1952. In January of that year, the Falkland Islands were established as an apostolic prefecture. The Salesian Fathers, who had arrived in 1888, were replaced by the Mill Hill Missionaries.

Today the Falkland Islands are best known as the site of a bitter battle in 1982. That year, Argentina invaded the islands in an attempt to take them from England. Margaret Thatcher, then the British Prime Minister, appealed to the United Nations, which condemned the action. When further diplomatic moves failed to sway the Argentine leadership, a British fleet was sent to recapture the islands.

This turn of events had a traumatic effect on the people of the Falkland Islands. To this day, the event is still a topic of conversation.

Early in 2002, at the request of the Vatican, the Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales took over responsibility for the Apostolic Prefecture of the Falkland Islands and the Independent Mission (Missio sui Iuris) of the South Atlantic islands of St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.

In October of 2002, Father Michael McParland, a member of the Society of African Missions, was appointed by Pope John Paul II to be responsible for all Catholics living on the islands of the South Atlantic Ocean.

Cruising for Tranquility

 The present St. Mary’s Catholic Church is a small white church with a red roof. It’s so plain from the outside that it could be mistaken for a Congregationalist house of worship in New England.

The interior of the church is warm with wood tones, and very peaceful. It’s a welcome respite because, with an increasing number of cruise ships now stopping at the Falkland Islands — five were in port the day I was there — many tourists arrive looking for a quiet place to ask God for safe travel home.

Facing the main altar, visitors and Mass attendants can look to the right and see the tabernacle with a painting of the Last Supper. To the left of the altar is a statue of the Blessed Mother with the Child Jesus. In front is a relief of Jesus the Good Shepherd, pictured with two sheep.

Behind the altar a large crucifix hangs in front of a blue velvet drape. To either side are stained-glass windows. A brass plaque on the wall explains their origin: “These windows were presented in 1984 by the Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters of Glass through the London Stained Glass Repository, having been saved from a demolished church in Southampton. The windows depict the Annunciation, an angel, and the women at the tomb and were designed by Henry Holiday in about 1909-1913.”

Mary’s Here

The Stations of the Cross lining the perimeter are lovely oil paintings, each one set in a wooden frame with a cross on top.

At the back of the church is the choir loft. A rope from the belfry hangs down into the loft. From here, the bell is rung 10 minutes before 10 a.m. each Sunday morning to let people know that Mass is about to start.

Just below the choir loft are six oil paintings by local artist Jamie Peck. These depict the origin and development of the Catholic Church in the Falklands.

A majestic oil painting of the Last Supper, originally mounted above the former high altar, commands attention from the face of the choir loft.

Taken as a single visual statement, the interior of this small but stately church is a clarion call to prayer, contemplation and worship in a place that has seen more than its share of combat and confrontation through the years.

The Blessed Mother herself must be very pleased with what she sees whenever she looks in on the church bearing her name in Stanley, Falkland Islands.

Joseph Albino writes from
Syracuse, New York.

Planning Your Visit

Sunday Mass is at 10 a.m.; Vigil Mass at 5 p.m. Saturday. Daily Mass is at 9 a.m., except for Mondays, when Mass is said at the Mount Pleasant Airport at 7 a.m. During Advent and the months of May and October, there is once-a-week recitation of the rosary, saying of the Litany of Loreto and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

Getting There

If arriving by cruise ship, turn right at the port on to Ross Road. Head for the post office; the church is across the street. If flying to the Falklands, take a bus from Mount Pleasant Airport to Stanley. For more information, e-mail [email protected]