Girls of the Matanzas Church Orphanage
By William H. McGee.
New York: American Church Missionary Society, no date.
One of the things that make us realize most fully the touch of nature that makes the whole world kin is the likeness of the child life here to that one sees at home—on a superficial view. To the sojourner in Havana, the pangs of homesickness are measurably lessened by the sight of the children at play in that heart of Havanese social life, “Central Park.” The trundling hoops and “ring around the rosey,’ the doll and marbles and “tag” and “blind man’s buff,” transport him to climes far off and days long gone.
It is when one gets into the depths of that life, and knows it as it is, that a measure of the bloom disappears, and admiration for physical beauty becomes mixed with a feeling of pity at the limitations on the Cuban child in the great struggle toward “perfection.” Why it should be, we cannot say. The political oppression which breeds subservience and deceit in his forebears may be transmitted to the child. The superficial politeness which finds expression in terms that at times are ludicrous may blunt the moral faculty from the cradle. Sure it is that, among the masses, in trustworthiness and in truthfulness, in clear ethical conceptions and a keen sense of honor, he is lacking—if the observation and experience of many workers in the field may be relied upon.
Among the submerged in city or country this can hardly be wondered at. Whether in the city ‘court’ or the country bohéo or hut, the crowding makes true home life out of the question and sights and sounds of which old age might well remain ignorant become a part of the normal order with the first spark of intelligence. And the children are intelligent—surprisingly bright and quick to learn, and lovable, too, as the children in our own Asilô at Matanzas prove; but the power of application seems to weaken early; and this not from any failure of the mental powers, but because the earlier desire to improve is swallowed up in the longing for admiration and applause.
In a measure, this situation is the result of the commanding position of the child in Cuban home life. Here, if anywhere, the Child is King! In high and low, among rich and poor, each parent, to the measure of his ability, devotes himself to his children. No request is denied; no whim left unsatisfied. From the baby in the cradle to the youth in society, the path is made as smooth as may be; and apparently little thought is given to preparation for the battles of after years. A failure to realize my “whole duty” to my neighbor; and what a writer has called “good judgment as to the shadiest side of every way of life,” must result from such training as this. And yet the deeds of true heroism in the struggles for political liberty, the universal courtesy to the stranger within the gates, the punctilious observance [1/2] (often at no small sacrifice) of all demands of social intercourse, are fruits in after life that repel the thought of innate selfishness or thoughtless greed.
Nor are there wanting proofs of devotion and application that give promise of what may yet he done. In our Sunday-school at Jesus del Monte, under the Cuban deacon, Mr. Peña, are boys and girls who have scarcely missed a session in four years. In Bolondron, under Mr. Moreno, is a little fellow six years old, who begs to be taken to Sunday-school even when he is ill, on the ground that his most important duty is that to God—who, when he cannot come, insists on sending his penny for the offering! Are there many such like in the Church at home?
Christmas with us is replaced here by the Epiphany, and “the kings” bring the gifts instead of Santa Claus. In former years, the day was a combination of Christmas giving and Fourth of July noise-making; but the present tendency to substitute for the holy days of the Church such legal holidays as the State prescribes has reduced its importance no little, though the Cuban’s natural love of giving and receiving presents will make the surrender slow in coming. Probably the great day in the child’s life is his “saint’s day” rather than his birthday and so prodigal has the Roman Church been in furnishing such days, that none is so poor as to be without one!
The American intervention gave a great impetus to education. The lack of facilities for public school work is supplemented by many private schools, which are gradually to be brought into line with the State institutions. Naturally, many of the public schools are woefully lacking in efficiency: and the condition of the much neglected schools of Spanish days has created widespread prejudice against them among the better class of Cubans. But of the private schools many are no more than “day nurseries”—a little reading, a good bit of embroidering, and a superabundance of sitting around. Though some of them do little to educate the child, they at least keep him off the street.
The daily routine of life furnishes little inspiration except to the unusually acquisitive. At six o’clock the rising bell; at six-thirty to the oratory for prayers—on working days; on Sundays and holidays prayers are omitted; at seven o’clock the first breakfast, a cup of coffee and a piece of bread; from eight o’clock (when the clay pupils come) to ten o’clock, recitations. Then a recess till about eleven-thirty, during which breakfast is eaten. From eleven-thirty to one o’clock recitations; recess till two o’clock; recitations till three o’clock; sewing till four o’clock. At this hour the day pupils leave, but the boarders remain in the schoolroom till five o’clock, though no study is required. From five to six o’clock exercise and play in the patio (courtyard), or on the flat roof of the house, followed by the dinner. At seven-thirty study for half an hour and at eight-thirty evening prayers are said and after that to sleep!
Would that we were equipped to illustrate the advantage of that “more excellent way” which is conformed to the spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ! For the Cuban child will soon become the Cuban parent; and the future of Cuba will largely depend on what the next few generations are.
[* Transcriber’s note: The Rev. William Hugh McGee was ordained in Kentucky in 1891 where he served until 1899. He then served in Cuba, arriving in Havana in 1899. He soon came down with yellow fever but, having recovered, continued to serve there until 1903. By 1905 he is listed in Charlottesville, Virginia and in 1907 he was residing in Columbus, Ohio. The 1909 American Church Annual indicates that he was deposed by the Bishop of Virginia within the previous year.]