Our Faith is our Strength: A Tribute to the Catholic Community of Tristan da Cunha

How a Catholic community steadily grew, for most of its existence, without the presence of a priest – from AD NEWS 4 OF 2022

In the midst of the hustle and bustle of city life, to be able to escape to the world’s most remotely inhabited place has been a dream of mine for the last decade. The island of Tristan da Cunha, smack bang in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, halfway between here and South America, is exactly that place. The volcanic island is one of the UK Overseas Territories, without airport, surrounded by 2437 km of ocean to the next inhabited settlement (St Helena Island). The journey to sail the 2787 km from Cape Town takes 5-10 days, depending on weather and the speed of the vessel. 

After being discovered by and named after the Portuguese sailor Tristão da Cunha in 1506, the island was annexed by the British in 1816 to avoid any attempts by the French to free Napoleon from St Helena. After the military garrison was recalled, William Glass and a few others decided to stay. Except for a few years of evacuation due to a volcanic eruption next to the settlement in 1962, the island has been permanently inhabited and today boasts a population of 261. 

The Anglican Church has been present on the island since the 1850s, but in 1908 two Catholic sisters from Ireland, Agnes and Elizabeth Smith, decided to remain Catholic. From the humble beginning of their living room, the Catholic community steadily grew, for most of its existence without the presence of a priest. The community was part of the Archdiocese of Cape Town until 1986 and some of our retired priests remember their pastoral visits to the island fondly. Afterwards it was given to the Mill Hill Missionaries and since 2016 a young Norbertine, Abbot Hugh Allan O Praem, looks after the islands of the South Atlantic from the UK. 

In order to keep the island Covid-free, all passengers and crew were mandated to quarantine in a designated hotel for 10 days with two PCR tests before boarding the ship. Having survived with sanity intact, we boarded the SA Agulhas II, the polar research vessel of the South African government, due to sail to Gough island to relieve the weather station crew based there for a full year. After a two day wait in port and a five day journey of fairly rough seas we spotted the outline of the volcanic cone in the distance and were flown over to Tristan da Cunha via helicopter in a disorganised scramble (luggage was to follow only the next day so we all had to try and grab the barest of essentials). 

After three long lockdown years, a Catholic priest was able to set foot on the island again to celebrate Holy Mass and administer the sacraments to the 50-or-so Catholics there. The community was extremely kind and welcomed all the visitors warmly, to counter the chilly wind and rainy weather so prevalent. 

It was a great relief to have solid ground under one’s feet again, to walk around freely without a worry in the world (except maybe some fierce-looking cattle that had to be dodged on the walks outside the settlement), and to have no cellphone and internet connection and thus not be bombarded by constant emails. 

Among my highlights were the celebrations of First Holy Communion and Baptism, but also the sad occasion of the passing of HM Queen Elizabeth II. The three weeks of our visit were a busy time for the islanders as well as those visiting on the Agulhas, and it was refreshing to relate to people like in the times before the pandemic. To be able to socialise, visit people in their homes, meet new and interesting people, and to enjoy a braai or a home cooked meal with the tastiest mutton and the juiciest crayfish in good company is a rewarding experience after all the isolation and social distancing of the last years. I salute the Tristanian spirit, their motto “our faith is our strength” and the heartfelt welcome and support received daily. The Catholic community there is a real example for all of us how to live our faith daily. Hoping to return one day, they and their remote island in the sea will forever remain in my heart and prayers.

Fr Dominic Helmboldt
Administrator St Mary’s Cathedral

Posted in Archdiocesan News.

4 Comments

  1. Great article and a pleasure to meet Dominic a star in the dark sky…

  2. Thank you for sharing your trip to Tristan de Cunha.
    Your letter was very informative and interesting.

  3. Thanks for sharing this wonderful experience with us Fr Dominic. We often take our availability of priests for granted.

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