One of a Jamaican Kind: Fr. Bertram Chin, C.P.

by Lucian Clark, C.P.

"Mas' Alfred" was a seventy-year old parishioner of Santa Cruz, Jamaica, West Indies. For income he attentively maintained the parish church and grounds, traveling from home to church on his trusty bicycle. Coming home from work one afternoon on one of those narrow and winding Jamaican roads, Public HospitalMas' Alfred was hit and knocked from his bike by a careless and speeding driver. His injuries were such that he had to be taken to the public hospital in Kingston. There he lay recuperating for three long months. right: Kingston Public Hospital

His pastor, Passionist Father Bertram Chin, regularly made the long trip from Santa Cruz to visit "Freddy", his faithful parishioner and trusted worker. What Fr. Bertram found in these visits continues to haunt him as a vivid "memory of the Passion". The hospital conditions were terrible. "Cockroaches literally crawling on Freddy, even in his food!" he says. A distinctive part of this Passion memory, the pastor tells us, "was his look, whenever I came to visit. It was the 'look of life'. It said, 'I'm not alone. You care for me. I'm going to make it!'"

The only native-born

In the beautiful island of Jamaica, West Indies, the Passionist charism is alive and bearing fruit. For Fr. Bertram Chin, C.P., the island is not only his place of mission, it is his home. Truly, he is what we might call "one of a kind", because he is the only native-born Passionist in Jamaica. He was born in Kingston 38 years ago, the first of three children, and baptized in the St. Elizabeth Passionist Parish where he now serves as pastor.

In this beautiful but troubled land, Fr. Bertram sees a great need for the charism of the Passion. Because there is such poverty, the people here listen closely for those who will cry out for justice. Because of so much violence, born of pervasive poverty, the people listen for the voices that call out a way to peace.

The Catholic people of Jamaica welcomed the Passionists in 1955 when the Holy See asked the Eastern Province United States Passionists to take up the challenge of this new mission. As a people who delight in the Ministry of the Word, Jamaican Catholics embraced the Passionists unreservedly and took immediately to the special human touch of their preaching.

They Come from All Over

Fr. Bertram points out the invaluable form Passionist preaching has taken in his homeland. Mount Calvary Retreat House, Mandeville, is the island's retreat house. "Our people have the opportunity for quality retreats. They come from all over the island -- Protestants and Catholics alike. At Mount Calvary they are spiritually formed, young and old."

Jamaica is a small country with tremendously large problems. This Third World country is beset with massive social and economic isssues that dominate the lives of all, bringing much suffering, especially to the "little people". "So much dignity and self-respect have been taken from our people," says Bertram. "People in countless neighborhood communities have to stand at the street corner, out in the open, taking their daily bath at a fire hydrant. So many simply have lost hope."

Fr. Bertram recognizes, maybe more than most, the need for the charism of the Passion in his country. "It speaks to these people," he assures us. "It speaks to their inner dignity, even if the man's house is a shack and he has no shoes. Our Passionist mission is to celebrate dignity, inspire hope and validate their humanity. If we can help our people to root their suffering in the sufferings of Jesus; if, rather than curse the darkness, we can light the candle of some quality of life for those from whom so much has been robbed, we will be true companions of Paul of the Cross."

Fr. Bertram is joined by other Passionists in this mission where he is also the superior. With him are two Passionist priests and a Brother from the Province of St. Paul of the Cross. There are three Passionist Sisters, natives of Ireland, now belonging to their Congregation's New England branch. Another Passionist, Most Reverend Paul M. Boyle, C.P., is Bishop of Mandeville, one of the three Jamaican dioceses. right: Fr Bertram with Richard Leary, C.P. and Michael Stomber, C.P.

An Ordinary Mass?

Fr. Bertram dates his Passionist vocation to his teenage years. He did not feel particularly religious in his early years or, even, personally close to the Passionist priests. However, some family circumstances brought him to what was an ordinary Mass, albeit a Memorial Mass for his deceased grandmother. It was a Saturday morning in the fall of 1979; he was seventeen. To this day he's not sure what actually happened at that Mass. What he does know is that somehow the Holy Spirit stirred profoundly and powerfully in his heart. Immediately afterwards he found himself going into the sacristy to speak to Fr. Charles Dougherty, C.P., the priest who had celebrated the Mass. He told him very simply that he wanted to become a Passionist.

Passionist sealThat was probably the easy part of the journey. Many difficulties and challenges have followed since then. Today he is the only vocation left from a strong group of Jamaicans who prepared for the Passionists with him. Fr. Bertram recalls that "those were the difficult years. I had to watch so many of my friends leave. Now, as the only Jamaican, I find it a challenge both to understand and to be understood in a religious community where I am the only member of my culture."

There's also a concern for the future. "I worry about the future of the Jamaican Passionist Mission. Yes, I do see signs of vocations among our youth. I keep speaking about it and encouraging the young, but it is indeed for them a long leap."

Signs of Hope

"Signs of hope" are what Fr. Bertram calls the people and events that give him the strength and determination to go on. They appear from both near and far away. From nearby, for instance, are the very people of St. Elizabeth. So heart-warming for Fr. Bertram is how they identify themselves always as "Passionist", a tribute to both their spirit and to the Passionists who labored at "St. E.'s" since 1955.

From far away also come signs of hope. New bonds of fraternity and collaboration have emerged in recent years. Fr. Bertram spent the last two years in Chicago, earning his Master of Divinity Degree while living with the Passionist Community at the Catholic Theological Union. It was his first integrated Passionist living experience. More recently, he was the guest preacher at the renowned Solemn Novena of St. Ann in Scranton, Pa. The sight of these thousands of pilgrims coming in devotion and prayer, listening so attentively to the Word of God, especially moved him.

With Both Feet!

Ordained only in 1991, Fr. Bertram did not wait until priestly ordination to "jump in with both feet". He was still a deacon when the Passionist Superior in Jamaica asked him not simply to take over a parish, but actually to start a parish which did not yet exist. The land was purchased by the bishop but it became Bertram's job to raise the funds for designing and directing the building of the church. Today, the parish of Santa Cruz is a strong and active parish under the care of diocesan clergy, bursting with pride at the beautiful design and structure of the church.

Fr Bertram about Fr Martin Tooker:

Fr Martin had a good influence on my life not only as a priest but as a Passionist. He was a man for the people. He lived his priesthood in the spirit of Vatican II.

He preached the Passion in a way that offered people life and hope. He was a holy priest and an exemplary Passionist, a good example for anyone who wishes to follow.

And what are the special moments, events or experiences of inspiration that have sustained him for the challenge in his Jamaican Passionist Mission? Bertram recalls Passionists who pioneered the way. One was Fr. Martin Joseph Tooker, C.P. who lived with him at the time when he was struggling to establish the parish and build the church at Santa Cruz. Fr. Martin was a unique source of hope and promise for the young priest.

Fr. Martin, who died in January, 1999 after thirty-one years' service in Jamaica, was always a booster of spirits for many young Passionist missionaries. He constantly peppered his conversations with 'thumbs up' words and expressions like "Not to worry now, this is going to work out" or "Let's be patient, it will be all right" or "Stick with it, you're going about it the right way!"

Today, for Bertram, for his fellow Passionists and collaborators the challenges ahead are many. So too, are the endless opportunities for doing good. Bertram Chin, Passionist, is ready.

Three CompanionsWhen his friend, Freddie, grounds keeper at the Church of Santa Cruz, met with that terrible accident, Fr. Bertram wasn't content with his pastoral visits to the Kingston Public Hospital. After Alfred returned home, Bertram organized a legal response enabling them to bring about a suit on behalf of Mas' Alfred. Alfred has since gone home to God, but his memory is a special one to his pastor.

 


Fr Bertram Chinn, born December 23, 1962 in Kingston, Jamaica, was professed on September 14, 1985 -- the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross -- and ordained on June 30, 1991. This article appeared in the Passionists' Compassion about ten years after his ordination. He died after a brief illness on September 3, 2003.