Project Canterbury

Puerto Rico’s Need of the Church: A Review of the Situation by the Bishop of Minnesota.

By Henry Benjamin Whipple.

New York: Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, 1900.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2015

THE recent changes in the map of the world opened two new mission fields to the Christian people of this country. Puerto Rico and the Philippines now have large claims upon them. Puerto Rico because it is close at hand, because its moral and religious condition is so pitiable, and because of the discussion concerning its future social and commercial relations with the United States has a peculiar and present interest for us. The Bishop of Chicago has been appointed to take charge of the work of our Church in the island. At his request, the Bishop of Minnesota, during a visit to the island in February, kindly consented to make some investigation concerning social and religious conditions. The Military Governor of Puerto Rico, General Davis, of whom the Bishop speaks as "a wise and fearless administrator, with an intelligent appreciation of the grave problems to be solved," gave Bishop Whipple every facility for ascertaining the true state of affairs.

The island, ninety miles in length and thirty-five miles in width, is the home of nearly one million people. The population is, therefore, more dense than that of any country in the world, save Belgium. Until one hundred and fifty years ago the island was but sparsely settled; but with the introduction of the profitable sugar and coffee industries there came the importation of thousands of slaves from Africa, and the immigration of people from neighboring islands. The planters made no effort to improve the condition of these people. They received for their labor barely enough to sustain life. Today they live as they have lived for many years, crowded in miserable one-room shacks with earthen floors, and with nothing to safeguard the sanctity of family life. About 75,000 are full-blooded Negroes, and probably 200,000 are of mixed Negro blood. The educated people of Puerto Rico are very much the same as educated and refined people the world over. The Bishop met many of them who are one with the people of the United States in their hopes for the future of the Island.

Puerto Rico is blessed with an equable and healthful climate. Of its 3,500 square miles rather more than two-thirds are of rich arable soil; the remainder is sandy seacoast and rocky hills. Sugar, coffee and tobacco have been the three agricultural staples. For the first and last the future outlook is bright, but the coffee industry has been practically ruined for years to come by the hurricane of last August. This means widespread suffering, as the coffee-picking furnished employment to multitudes of men, women and children.

Illiteracy is painfully prevalent. Only twelve per cent, of the population can read and write; yet the Bishop says the people, as a class, are intelligent, but have lived so long under servile conditions that they lack thrift and ambition.

In view of the sadly familiar story told by Father Sherman of the immorality of priesthood and people, Bishop Whipple does not speak at length of the moral condition of the island. The marriage fees extorted by the Roman priests have prevented multitudes from Christian marriage, and this has led to much of the awful demoralization.

Hope lies in the education of the children. It will require one of the best educators in the United States, with competent assistants, to organize a school system which shall prepare the rising generation for citizenship. If there can be found some one who can do for Puerto Rico what Mr. Frye is doing for Cuba, the outlook will be vastly improved.

At the present time, under General Eaton as Director of Public Instruction, seventy-four American and over five hundred native teachers are employed. The average attendance is more than twenty-one thousand. This, however, is only one-fifth of the children of school age. The establishment of an efficient system of schools would require an expenditure of a million and a half dollars annually. The Bishop points out that this is an extremely small amount, compared with the three million dollars spent by the United States Government for the education of 25,000 Indian children.

In his visits to the principal towns, Bishop Whipple found everywhere a warm welcome. The hearts of the people seemed to be hungry for the ministrations of the Church. His first service was held in San Juan, where the Rev. George B. Pratt has gathered the beginnings of a promising congregation. At the present time they are mostly Americans. It is not to be expected that, so long as the services of the Church are held in an inconvenient and inadequate place, any but those who are already earnest Churchpeople, or those who wish to gather with their fellow-countrymen, will attend them. Much, however, has been done to prepare the way for future work. A class of twelve persons was presented for Confirmation. Some of the Army officers are interested in the maintenance of the services. One of them acts as organist. Another is one of the Church officers, but they are liable to removal at any time, and cannot be permanent elements of strength. The Bishop held two other services in San Juan; one in the regimental barracks and one in the Church room, at which he confirmed a second class.

On Washington's Birthday there was a notable celebration in the San Juan Theatre, when several hundred Puerto Rican children sang the national songs of the United States in English, and the Bishop delivered an address upon "Our Country."

One of the most gratifying philanthropic efforts in the island is the work being done by the "Woman's Aid Society of Puerto Rico," with headquarters in San Juan, to relieve the terrible suffering caused by the hurricane of last August. "We may not fathom the mystery of such a visitation," says the Bishop, "yet I believe that the outpouring of sympathy from the citizens of the United States has done more than anything else could have done to draw the hearts of the survivors to ourselves. I wish that American citizens could see, as I have seen, the work of love being done by the society. I know of no charitable work more perfectly organized than this effort to help the poor women of the island to earn an honest living."

In the first department, where applications for help are made to a Spanish-speaking member of the society, we watched scores of tidy-looking women passing in slips of paper upon which were written names of the articles desired—clothing, groceries, or medicines. Their faces, while they showed the marks of suffering, were kindly and intelligent.

In the second department work is received, examined, and paid for, the garments put away and distributed among the extreme poor. In the third department the work is cut out and distributed. These women clamor for work and are ambitious to do it well. A look at the crowd of eager applicants reveals their anxiety. In a fourth department clothing is issued. A visitor is employed to investigate every case. Medicines are given out from a dispensary by several native physicians, who give their services.

In cases where the poor are likely to be turned out of their homes because of inability to pay their rent, a loan of from three to five dollars is made, which is repaid in smaller amounts weekly. There has not been an instance where the debt has not been paid. The young girls are special objects of care and attention, for in work and self-respect rests their salvation. A strict account of every person helped and every garment made is kept, and, although an expert bookkeeper examines the books periodically, the accounts have always been found correct. Of the magnitude of this blessed work, I cannot here speak. The society now desires to build a maternity hospital for these wretched women, whose sufferings at a time when comforts are needed are beyond description. The means for such a noble work would be provided at once if American women could realize the suffering of their unfortunate sisters.

Journeying to Ponce, on the southern coast, the Bishop found the largest town on the Island, with a population of rather more than 56,000. Unfortunately, the Rev. Frederic Caunt, who is in charge of the Church work in this city, was absent on a visit to the adjoining island of St. Thomas. There is an iron church here, built a number of years ago by the Bishop of Antigua when the work was under the direction of the Church of England. For many years the church was closed. In August, 1898, some of the Churchmen among the soldiers in General Miles's army reopened it and held lay services. Everything was in a state of disorder and decay. The hurricane of August, 1899, wrecked the building badly, and, although it has been repaired, it is sadly inadequate to the needs of the work. For the benefit of those who wish to do something practicable, the Bishop points out that adjoining the present church there is an admirable piece of property which can be bought for $5,000. He believes that it should be secured at once and a church erected upon it. During the Rev. Mr. Caunt's recent absence in the United States the services at Ponce have been maintained by Mr. Howe, who has acted as lay-reader.

Mayaguez, on the west coast, is another important town of 36,000 people. It has been impossible as yet to secure a suitable place for services. Through the kindness of Army officers, the local theatre was obtained for the Bishop's visit and a service was appointed for five o'clock. A large congregation gathered, but owing to rough weather the Bishop's steamer was delayed, and when he arrived the people had left the theatre. Special messengers were sent by the commanding officer throughout the town, and by seven o'clock 250 people had reassembled.

For some time the British Vice-Consul, Mr. Monefeldt, acted as lay-reader at Mayaguez, but when the Presbyterians established a mission and a school, he felt that he should give them his support. With the planting of a suitable mission of our Church, Mr. Monefeldt's interest and influence would again be exerted on its behalf.

In a private house at Arroyo, another southern coast-town, the Bishop held service with a good congregation, including a number of Romanists, while a Spanish gentleman furnished the music.

A drive of eighteen miles over a beautiful military road brought the Bishop to Cayey. "The journey," says he, "was a revelation of beauty such as I have rarely seen in any part of the world, unsurpassed in its wealth of tropical trees, flowers, and fruits. The peculiarity of the mountains is that they are cultivated quite to the top in coffee and tobacco."

At Cayey, the Bishop was the guest of the commanding officer, and held a never-to-be-forgotten service at the barracks. Besides the English-speaking residents, a few Puerto Ricans and over a hundred soldiers were present. At the close, many of the soldiers came to the Bishop, and as they shook his hand, said with tears in their eyes, "The only trouble is that it was too short. It is the first service we have had during the year our troops have occupied the town"; while one English resident said, "It is the first service I have heard in the two years I have been here." Well might the Bishop say, "My heart burned as I remembered the temptations surrounding these young men. It was a pleasure to meet Army officers and others, who said to me, 'You baptized me when a child,' or, 'You confirmed me.' One said, 'You confirmed my father and mother, and then myself, and now I want you to confirm my boys.' A soldier convalescing from typhoid fever in the hospital said to another, 'I must hear the Bishop to-night if I go on my hands and knees.'

Bishop Whipple is convinced that the first duty of the Church in the United States is to send a bishop to Puerto Rico. This must be done quickly. Precious time has already been lost by delay. There could be no field more attractive to a great-hearted shepherd of souls, both because of the difficulty of the work and the certainty of the harvest. A man is needed of profound sympathy, wise executive ability, and the hopefulness of his Master. Nothing less than such characteristics will enable him to grapple with the difficulties and solve the problems by which he will be confronted.

Next, if the Church is to meet the responsibilities which God has placed upon her, suitable buildings must be erected in the prominent centres of influence, beginning at the capital, San Juan. Puerto Ricans, like Cubans, cannot understand why an Apostolic Church fails to provide a dignified and churchly place of worship. In the Bishop's opinion, the importance of this cannot be exaggerated. A glance at the room in which services of our Church are now being held, will indicate the reality of the need. This room is occupied during the week by the members of a literary club. Inadequate as its accommodations are, they must soon be surrendered because of other uses the club has for the building.

The third need was voiced by a prominent Puerto Rican when he said to the Bishop: "Aside from the building of churches, which are absolutely necessary for success, you must have a body of itinerant missionaries who can speak the Spanish language, and who will visit from house to house, until you can train a native ministry." It is Bishop Whipple's opinion that it would be wise to commission devout men as colporteurs, catechists and lay-readers to visit the homes of the people and awaken in them the love and confidence which can only be aroused by personal touch.

"I confess," says the Bishop, "that my heart was filled with sorrow at finding that the Church had lost so many golden opportunities for work in the island, for lack of a resident bishop. It is an impossibility that such a field as Puerto Rico, with its many awful problems, can be cared for by a bishop residing in the United States. No one knows better than I the difficulties which beset our way, but there never will be a difficulty which God cannot overcome."

“For all the sin, sorrow and ignorance of Puerto Rico there is but one remedy—the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It will do for these poor souls what it has done for the people of every race and clime. There is no room for discouragement if the work is entered upon with faith and hope and in the strength which comes from God.”

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