A rose blooms on the hill

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In a world inundated with so much that is disturbing, so much that is parched and barren, it is always a relief to come across flowers in the desert. President George Bush, the father, referred to these as “points of light; the imagery being that, in a world or universe of darkness, much like a constellation of stars, there is light and hope; in an arid desert, there is an oasis of life and beauty. To be sure, Bush was referring to groups and institutions, many outside of government, that were providing exceptional humanitarian service to those less fortunate. He was referring to those bodies that go above and beyond to enrich the lives of the down-trodden, to make this world a better place for those who find themselves in straightened circumstances.

One such place is the Fiennes Institute, now located in the old Nurses Hostel at the top of the Queen Elizabeth Highway. This was the place where student nurses once lived; many of those nurses would go on to work at the Holberton Hospital, which was named for a kind-hearted minister by the name of Robert Holberton.  According to the 150th EMANCIPATION COMMEMORATIVE MAGAZINE published in 1984, the good ‘man of the cloth,’ “in 1829, established the St. John’s Friendly Society. It was intended to promote good feelings among the lower classes by aiding in times of distress, providing the sick and needy with a daily meal, and encouraging sobriety and industry among them. A boiler having been presented to the Society, a ‘soup house” was set up. Since the planters did not care for the sick very long after emancipation, Reverend Holberton provided a doctor when they fell ill, for up to this time, there had been no relief for any black person . . .”. That was the beginning of organised care for poor black people.

Meanwhile, the Fiennes Institute was founded by Governor Eustace Fiennes in 1929, one hundred years later, to provide a home and care for those who had fallen on hard times, and could no longer provide for themselves.  This was on the self-same Holberton grounds, just across the road, due east of the aforementioned Nurses Hostel. Sir Selvyn Walter, a great former Member of Parliament, outstanding debater and writer, described Governor Fiennes and his work here in Antigua thusly, “What we have to address is how the nature of our villages and our city environment has imperceptibly changed, leaving our older people stranded like beached whales floundering in the shallows of the twilight of life without direction or help. This phenomenon was recognised in the 1920’s by our Governor, Sir Eustace Fiennes, whose socialist background impelled him to initiate programmes in Antigua that are still relevant today. I salute him, especially for drilling for sub-surface water – Fiennes Well; attempting to take care of health problems — vide the lepers; and attempting to solve the problems associated with old age in a colonial society — vide the Fiennes Institute, derisively called the Poor House by the general populace. You may wish to call the results of his efforts by any name you desire, but when we consider the existence at that time of slums like Gray’s Farm, Garling’s Land, Pig Village, The Point and Booby Alley, the changing social conditions in the villages, the influx of people to St. John’s and its environs, the construction of the Fiennes Institute near to the Holberton Hospital and Lady Nugent Cemetery for black paupers, it was a planning feat. Poor, old people had two places to go — either Fiennes Institute or Lady Nugent Cemetery, both of which were in close proximity to each other.” [DAILY OBSERVER, July 29th, 2010, column entitled, OF DIS AND DAT: THE PARADOX OF OLD AGE (Part I)]. We’re talking about points of light, folks; we’re talking about roses a-blooming!

Interestingly, prior to the construction of the Fiennes Institute on the Holberton Hospital grounds, the home for the indigent was in the building on Old Parham Road that now houses the Antigua Grammar School. The burial place for poor black people was at that same Old Parham Road site, just east of the poor house – Lady Nugent Cemetery. According to historical records, lepers, the mentally disturbed, and the poor were in that Antigua Grammar School building until the mentally disturbed and the lepers were moved to Rat Island. The disturbed were eventually moved to the current Clarevue Hospital in 1905. [HISTORICAL AND ARCHEOLOGICAL SOCIETY, THE MUSEUM OF ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA: Of Lepers, Lunatics and The History of Rat Island by Dr. Susan Lowes]

Mercifully, the original Fiennes Institute buildings were razed by the government in 2019. This was after industrial action by its workers who were fed-up with the abominable working conditions, what with the 90-year old structures that had fallen into a woeful state of disrepair, and were a clear and present occupational hazard. To his credit, Minister Weston, he of the Ministry of Works, made a promise to the workers at that time (exactly a year ago), that they would be moved to better facilities, and he delivered on his promise when they were moved to the Nurses Hostel. He actually, promised that a new home for the unfortunate would be built, but nobody is expecting that promise to be kept any time soon. After all, it is an open and pitiful secret that this administration, never mind its braggadocio and self-described wonderfulness, is flat broke. This administration cannot do a blessed thing without going, cap-in-hand, to some pliant financial entity for a loan, or to the ever-obliging Chinese (who have their own self-serving agenda) for another gift. It will surprise no one if the oh-so-generous Chinese eventually provide the government with a grant to build a new home for the indigent . . . just in time for the next election campaign. As you can imagine, at that time, there will be the grand announcement and the ground-breaking, with much sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. . . and the pictures and the story of the new Fiennes will be in the election ‘monkey-festo!’ Sigh! So tiresome!  

But we digress. We here at NEWSCO have been concerned about the plight of Mr. Malcolm Harley aka ‘Si’, an 85-year-old man who’d fallen on hard times, and who was squatting in a container on the grounds of the Sunshine Hub Car Park. Regrettably, Si was unceremoniously thrown from his makeshift dwelling, and last we’d heard, he was living on the streets of St. John’s. We’ve been trying to locate him to see in what ways we can assist, but so far our efforts have been fruitless.  Actually, it was our search for Si that took us to the Fiennes Institute this past Thursday, and while we were disappointed that Si was not there, our hearts leaped within us with joy at what we discovered. Permit us to explain. The Fiennes Institute is spotless. The residents are well-cared for, and they are all clean, comfortable and contented. This writer had the pleasure of meeting Shauna and Nicky, two extremely pleasant and welcoming nurses, who were quite happy to answer questions and show me around. I was impressed. Shauna and Nicky have been at the Fiennes for roughly seven years, and they have almost never taken a day off – so dedicated are they to the residents and their calling. Yes, it is a calling; a labour of love, because they really cannot be paid for all that they do for their seventy-seven charges. They treat them like family – so much patience and concern and genuine affection. The Fiennes Institute is truly a point of light; a rose blooming on the hill; and the matron, and Shauna and Nicky, and the entire staff ought to be commended. They are doing a fantastic job, and we are grateful! May the rose that is the Fiennes Institute ever bloom!    We invite you to visit www.antiguaobserver.com and give us your feedback on our opinions.

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