This is how Minister of National Diversity and Social Integration, Rodger Samuel, saw the demolition of the historic Greyfriars Church of Scotland on Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain, on of all days, Sunday, the Sabbath for most Christian faiths.
Samuel, a pastor, lamented the near complete destruction of the church even as his ministry has been in talks with its 84-year-old owner businessman, Alfred Galy, on preserving it as a heritage site. Even more outraged than Samuel was his adviser, Dr Nurah Rosalie Cordner who risked her life, climbing onto an excavator to stop the demolition crew of contractor, Don Ramdeen & Co, from tearing down the centuries’ old church.
A small group of activists also joined Samuel, and his adviser in their defiant stand.
The sound of the excavator disturbed the quiet of Frederick Street, on an overcast Sunday morning. Cordner got an alert about the demolition and stood between what remained of the church and the excavation when she got to the site.
The operator refused to shut down the excavator when she called on him to do so. She admonished the operator and the contracting company for disobeying a rule of law which states that the moment a person stands in front of any heavy machinery, it must be immediately shut off.
The operator, who wished not to be named, said Cordner climbed onto the excavator and opened the door. In an attempt to shut the machine off, the operator claimed, she began pulling on random levers, causing the machine to spin out of control. She fell backward and the operator grabbed onto her to stop her from falling. He noted, had he not done this, she would have fallen under the treads of the massive machine, and would have been crushed.
The machine was finally shut down, but not before the majority of the historic building was demolished. The northern wall and the eastern pillars of the church had been torn down, exposing the inside of the building.
Standing atop the excavator, Cordner told reporters that Galy came “like a thief in the night” to demolish the building after the ministry had been negotiating with him to have the church listed as a historic site.
“The minister wrote to Mr Galy when they first announced the demolition of this building, and notified him of the ministry’s intention to list the building as a historic site. The dossier has already been prepared for this historic building as part of the Woodford square historic district and all we need now are the formalities,” Cordner said.
Appalled by the destruction, Samuel said it was an act of “wickedness” and refused to move from the site until the demolition equipment was taken away. “This is wickedness! This person is someone who needs to go down in history as someone who does not care about Trinidad and Tobago,” Samuel declared. “We have been negotiating with this man in good faith, the director of Town and Country (Planning) has been working with him, and this nonsense happened this morning? It seems like the gentleman’s initial intention was to tear this building down.”
Samuel said meetings were held with Port-of-Spain Mayor Raymond Tim Kee, the city engineer and others to help Galy develop the site while preserving the church structure.
“And on a Sunday morning when he knows that Port-of-Spain will be quiet, I am in Arima getting a call saying that they are tearing down this building. I am not going to move from here until this excavator moves,” said Samuel, who is also the MP for the eastern borough.
Don Ramdeen’s workers stopped the demolition, and within a few hours, Galy arrived for talks with Samuel, who was then supported by key figures of several heritage committees, including newly installed director of the National Trust Prof Winston Suite, a prominent architect, and concerned citizens.
Galy, acknowledging he was in negotiations with the ministry, said after reading an article in a newspaper, where an undisclosed reporter wrote an editorial that upset him, he decided to demolish the building.
“Because of the adverse editorials that were written in the paper, it triggered me off. I couldn’t take it anymore,” Galy said. Samuel appealed to Galy to stay his hand on tearing down the rest of the church. He agreed and the excavator was removed and the gates to the site closed.
Samuel told Newsday negotiations will continue from today, and although it was saddening to see a national treasure destroyed, his ministry will continue to work to preserve what is left of the historic building. The Greyfriars Church of Scotland has a history dating back to the 1800s. The church opened for public worship in January 1838. The church was named after it’s mother church in Glasglow, Scotland. In the church are memorial tablets commemorating the work of Rev Kennedy and Rev Brodie, as well as members of the congregations, who fell during the two World Wars. The graves of three children are on the compound, which is located near Woodford Square, the Red House, Public Library and Trinity Cathedral. The church was the subject of a painting by Trinidad and Tobago’s famed artist, Michel-Jean Cazabon, in 1870.
Samuel also spoke later to reporters at the east Trinidad installment of Government’s annual children’s gift-giving function at Larry Gomes Stadium, Malabar.
“Today was a very sad day,” he said. “I was able to work with him to have a stay of his actions, to remove the excavator out of the site to make sure we could have some dialogue. Let us think about the wider picture of preserving what we have as a nation, because too much has already been lost.”
Samuel proposed a “heritage block” be established in the old historic heart of the capital, bounded by St Vincent and Frederick Streets, and Hart and Duke Streets respectively.
“You will have the old library that is being restored now by Nalis. Just beyond the library on Pembroke Street there is a church that is over 100-years-old. We have the courthouse. We have the Ministry of National Security, the Red House, the (old) Cabildo building, the old Police Headquarters. Likewise we have Trinity Cathedral on one side, the Red House, the old Fire Station. He said that is a “massive heritage block” that needs protection.