Students of the SDA Lynch Plantation school using the church as an inspirational site for their "Live to Move" Zumba exercise.
One and a half weeks ago, the repaired tower of Statia’s former Dutch Reformed Church was signed over to the principal of the works by contractor Ulrich Redan of local company Raincoat Construction. It is an unmissable landmark within Oranjestad’s historical core as the tower of a church that since 1755 has been standing on the road that takes its name from it: Kerkweg (Church road).
The Daily Herald asked St. Eustatius Monuments Director Walter Hellebrand about this building that has seen so much of the island’s history pass it by.
“And was part of it!” Hellebrand hastens to add: “Part of hurricanes, part of the start of Statia’s rise to the commercial hub of the Caribbean, of being “The Golden Rock”, of Admiral Rodney’s raid in 1781, and of the island losing its economic pre-eminence after 1795.”
“You could argue that the church’s construction was the result of the building of the synagogue in 1739. In that year, the Jewish community on Statia completed their beautiful house of worship, two stories high, completely made of the most prestigious building material: imported Dutch yellow bricks.
“In the meantime, the original Dutch Reformed Church had been destroyed between 1689 and 1739 – probably because of a hurricane – and had not been rebuilt. So the Dutch Reformed congregation – representing the state religion of the time no less! – still had to make do with whatever building was available inside Fort Oranje.”
“That became an unacceptable situation. So a church had to be built that was bigger and more impressive than the synagogue. Bigger the new church was, but more impressive? Hmmm…” Hellebrand ponders. “The synagogue is two stories of imported yellow bricks, the most prestigious building material. The Dutch reformed church, however, was constructed mostly with local volcanic stone.”
Catholic approach to protestant building
However, every historical construction material used on Statia can be found in the building: imported bricks like the yellow so-called Dutch “IJsselsteentjes” that were brought over on the Dutch West India Company ships as ballast, but also red bricks (which could also come from New England).
However, most of the material came from the island itself: What we call “face stones” (made from Statia’s own basalt and so-called because of their shape) but also rectangular cut stones of the same material used as accents on the corners of the building and around window and door openings.
Other ballast material came from Bermuda: the limestone used for the fillings of the top facades of the church building. “A rather catholic use of building material for a protestant church,” Hellebrand jokes. “It does mean the church is a reflection of Statia’s position in the middle of the 18th century as a centre of international trade.”
Hellebrand explains that the plan of the building is the one the Dutch usually adopted for their churches on these islands: a singular nave with one transept that served as the entrance hall.
“Statia’s first church also had this design. It stood on Old Church Cemetery. The Dutch Reformed Church on St. Maarten had the same plan – as did the churches on the Danish Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix) where the Dutch were the dominant nation and even a Dutch creole was spoken.”
“Like those churches, the one on Statia was built without a tower. But then the Great Hurricane of 1772 did some serious damage to the building. Extensive repairs were required. And meanwhile, Statia had become the Golden Rock!
“So the repairs went beyond rebuilding: they also added a tower as a proud symbol of the wealth and riches of the island. Until very recently, it was still the tallest structure on Statia. Its north and west walls were plastered white to serve as a beacon for the many merchant ships that plied our waters in those days.”
“Captain Isaiah Robinson of the Andrew Doria may have used the tower to find the best mooring place to fire a salute to the flag on Fort Oranje on November 16, 1776. His 13 shots were answered by the canon of the fort: the First Salute that put St. Eustatius on the world stage.
“Being on a stage attracts attention. The British were none too amused with this recognition of the sovereignty of those 13 ‘rebellious colonies’. In December 1780, they declared war on the Republic of the Netherlands.
“Immediately, British admiral George Rodney was sent out to punish St. Eustatius. During the English occupation of the island, which lasted from February to November 1781, the tower of the Dutch Reformed Church served as a look-out post for the British troops and as an alarm station.
“In case of an alarm, a canon was to be fired from the Fort and then a red flag hoisted on top of the tower. The blast would be heard and the heads of officers and soldiers would turn to the church tower. If the red flag was there, they knew they had to assemble and get ready for action.
“In 1792, there was another major hurricane and the roof and top of the tower were severely damaged. This hurricane was kind of the harbinger of a different time: the end for Statia’s economy.
“The Americans learned to stand on their own feet and didn’t need Statia anymore. A succession of French, British and Dutch occupations between 1795 and 1816 sealed the island’s fate. As a result, people left the island. In 60 years’ time, the population dropped from a recorded 8124 to just 1790.”
“Ultimately, this led to the church falling into disrepair. Because there was no Dutch Reformed congregation left on the island to use the building, It was offered to the Methodists. For a while, their preachers held services in the church, but they already had their own chapel and it served their purposes fine, so they went back to their own house of worship.
“Then the Dutch Reformed Church board invited the Anglicans – and their priests did assemble their small group of followers there a few times – but the building was far too big for their congregation.
“In the 19th century, the Dutch Catholics on Curaçao developed an interest in the Windward Islands. That had to do with the preparation for the abolition of slavery. ‘The Africans had to be enlightened and civilized.’ Christianity was supposed to do the job.
“The priest Martinus Niewindt came to Statia. He was offered the Dutch Reformed Church to celebrate holy mass. Niewindt went on to become the first bishop in the Netherlands Antilles. However, the Catholics rented their own house for a church.”
The building from the Golden Rock days in 1755 was simply too big for the society that Statia had become in the 1800’s. But Hellebrand concludes: “It does mean that the space within those walls is the most ecumenical site on the island!”
“In 1844, the church also suffered serious earthquake damage. As a result, it was no longer safe to ring the bell in the tower – it could collapse all together … That was a problem because the Dutch Reformed alms foundation (to help the poor) depended to a large extent on the money people had to pay for ringing the bell at the funeral of a deceased.”
Hellebrand muses: “There is an interesting story about this bell. In the days of slavery, it was only rung for the funeral of a white person. But there was a black man on Statia who insisted it would also be tolled for his funeral. They just laughed at him: ‘For you? But you’re black!’
“And what happened? On the day he was buried, at the same time a white person was interred. So the bell did sound while he was buried. Those big words about his own funeral turned out to be the truth!”
Nowadays, the site of the church still makes for a very special, beautiful wedding location. “My own sister chose to be married within those walls!” Hellebrand points out.
“The very sympathetic head of the Census Office at the time, Ricardo Tjie A Loi, let me do most of the talking. But since the function of special census officer, or BABS (Buitengewoon Ambtenaar Burgerlijke Stand), has not been introduced to the Caribbean Netherlands, at the most crucial moment he had to take over from me.”