Peter and Paul's Caribbean Cathedral

Upon discovering the Virgin Islands in 1493 — naming them after the legendary beauty of St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgins — Christopher Columbus promptly dubbed one St. Thomas, after the doubting Apostle.

But it wasn't until 1666 that the island was settled by Lutheran colonists from Denmark. Because the Danes believed in religious tolerance, a small Catholic population was allowed to practice their faith in peace. The Catholics’ sacramental needs were met by transient priests, particularly Irish Dominicans.

From 1805 to 1807, a parish priest from the island of St. Croix came to St. Thomas Island every three months to bring the sacraments to the Catholics there. He also assisted the parishioners in rebuilding their church, which had burned to the ground in 1804. The new house of worship was consecrated on Jan. 12, 1806, and named after Sts. Peter and Paul.

In August 1856, the Redemptorist Fathers were invited to come and minister to the Catholics of the Virgin Islands. The Redemptorists offered uninterrupted service at Sts. Peter and Paul Church from May 1858 until May of 1989.

During their stay, the Redemptorists made many improvements to the church. In 1878, a new bell tower was built; a new organ was obtained from France in 1897. In 1902, statues of the two patrons, Sts. Peter and Paul, were placed above the outside entrance. Also between 1899 and 1901, two Redemptorists, Belgium artists, painted 12 major and several smaller murals inside.

In 1917, the United States purchased the Danish West Indies, including the islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix, for $25 million. On June 30, 1960, Pope John XXIII created the Prelature of the Virgin Islands with the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul as the cathedral parish.

Today, the majority of the residents of the island are Catholics — and what a lovely place they have to call their cathedral.

Song and Stone

Major improvements were made to the sanctuary during the 1960s. These included the addition of marble decorations to the bishop's throne, sanctuary walls, chairs and pillars. Two stained-glass windows, one honoring Peter and the other Paul, were placed on either side of the main altar.

In April 1977, the Prelature of the Virgin Islands was raised to the Diocese of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. The diocese is also part of the Episcopal Conference of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.

In 1993-94, because of damages resulting from Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the belfry was refurbished, and a new roof was put in place. Both the interior and exterior were repaired and repainted, windows and alcoves were decorated, the original marble stations of the cross were cleaned, and two damaged murals were restored.

There has always been a school attached to the cathedral. The Sisters of Charity of Convent Station, members of the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton foundation, have taught here in recent years.

At one time, there were as many as 16 sisters; at present there are only two.

Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral is located on 22 Main St. in the city of Charlotte Amalie, which is the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Besides the cathedral, there are three other churches on the island of St. Thomas.

The cathedral, which seats 450, sponsors four choirs. The adult choir is well-known. In fact, it has made a number of recordings; they're on sale in the cathedral office. The cathedral congregation loves to sing, too. If the adult choir cuts a hymn short, leaving out some verses, the choir members may have to answer to the congregation.

Tourists come from all over the world. Some stay for a day, particularly those who arrive on cruise ships. Other visitors stay for months at a time.

The Bishop's In

Some tourists also come to St. Thomas Island to enjoy Carnival, which is held the last week of the month of April. Carnival includes cultural celebrations with bands, dances and parades on the streets. Each island has its own such festival; the people select a time that will not conflict with the others so that more visitors will come to their unique celebration.

Since May 15, 1989, subsequent to the departure of the Redemptorists, the rector of the cathedral has been a diocesan priest. The current rector, Msgr. Jerome Feudjio, is assisted by one other priest. Because there are only two priests to meet the spiritual needs of a large congregation, it is not unusual for St. Thomas Jesuit Bishop George Murry to come in and help out. The Catholic traveler shouldn't be surprised to see the bishop himself saying daily Mass.

Every priest ever stationed at the cathedral gets lots of exercise. The rectory is located on a hill above the cathedral, and there are 103 steps connecting the two. It's not unusual for each of the two resident priests to make the taxing trip several times a day. I'm sure they feel it's worth it for the honor of serving such enthusiastic (and musical) parishioners in so beautiful and historic a setting as this.

Joseph Albino writes from Syracuse, New York.

Planning Your Visit

Mass is celebrated daily at 7 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. A novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help is said 15 minutes before the Wednesday daily Masses. On the first Friday of each month, immediately following the 12:15 p.m. Mass, the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for an hour of adoration. Confessions are heard Saturdays from 5 to 5:45 p.m. For more information, call (340) 774-0201.

Getting There

From the port where the cruise ships dock, it is a 15- to 20-minute walk up the main street to the cathedral, located at 22 Main St., behind the local Holiday Inn, in the city of Charlotte Amalie. Most visitors take a taxi for a cost of between $4 and $6.

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