Mission House brings past to life

The brochure for the Mission House in Bodden Town sets out a timeline for Cayman Islands history.

But it could just as easily contain a timeline for all of the work done to make the Mission House itself a compelling example of how to ring the past alive and show why present and future generations need to know and be proud of their roots.

The Mission House property, located at the end of Gun Square Road, was officially opened to the public on Saturday, with a ceremonial opening on Friday night for people who had worked on the project or contributed to it.

The Mission House is the first project of its kind to be completed by the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, Trust chairman Mrs. Carla Reid told Friday’s gathering.

She thanked Mr. Fenwick Watler, saying he had the foresight to recognise the historic value of the building and the confidence to place the property in the hands of the National Trust.

Available records indicate that the Mission House was built in the mid-1800s and was lived in by Presbyterian missionaries from 1878 to 1908. Then the Lyon family bought it, lived in it and used it as a school.

In 1920, the house was sold to Mr. Emil Watler, who loved in it with his wife Mary Jane and their children; son Fenwick turned it over to the National Trust.

At the ceremonial opening, a letter from Mr. Fenwick was read by his grand-nephew Michael Lockwood Jr. He said he had wanted the home preserved as a tribute to the best parents a child could ever desire. The idea of offering it to the Trust came from the late Carolyn Bodden, sister-in-law to his brother Hardy.

Chairman of the Trust Historic Advisory Committee Arthurlyn Pedley provided a synopsis of the background to the project from that time, in the early 1990s. The National Trust was a toddler then, having been born by law in 1987, Mrs. Pedley said.

The small Trust staff and small team of volunteers had to see if they had the wherewithal to take on the project. The Mission House became the property of the National Trust in 1997.

The next stage involved clean-ups, fund raising and architectural drawings. Thanks to information from Mr. Fenwick, his sisters and other relatives, there was never a question about what the two-storey structure would look like inside.

‘We have done the very best we can to replicate the interior from the 1920s to the 1970s,’ Mrs. Pedley said.

The exterior was another matter. Plans had been made based on how the house looked in the late 1990s. Then the National Archive received a picture of how the Mission House looked in 1908 and plans were revised accordingly.

Hurricane Ivan in September 2004 turned the Mission House into a pile of rubble. But Mr. Frank Roulstone and Mrs. Carla Reid, who had recently been installed as general manager and chairman respectively, were determined that the project should continue.

Among those sharing their vision was Mr. Boosie Arch, who was not only a veteran contractor but also a grandson of Emile and Mary Jane. If he wasn’t an expert in historic restoration when selected for the contract, then he is now, Mrs. Reid joked in thanking the many contributors, including project co-managers Mr. Tommie Bodden and Mr. Jonathan Jackson.

A plaque outside the entrance states that the project was made possible by the generous donations of Mr. Fenwick Watler, the Cayman Islands Government, Maples Finance Limited and Dr. and Mrs. Hartmann Koechlin.

Mrs. Reid said the driving force behind the project had been Mrs. Pedley, Mr. Roulstone and Trust historic programmes manager Denise Bodden.

She asked everyone present to remember that the Mission House site is a work in progress and that the property will continue to evolve. While she anticipated that the Mission House would play a significant role in Cayman’s tourism product, its educational value should not be underestimated: ‘We hope it will be a routine stop for all of our school children,’ she said.

Mrs. Reid urged residents to get involved in the National Trust district committees and work to preserve other historic sites. ‘I would also like to encourage the Administration of the day to enact suitable legislation for the preservation of these national treasures so that they may be enjoyed by future generations,’ she said.

Minister for Health Anthony Eden, who is also a Bodden Town MLA, brought remarks on behalf of Mr. Charles Clifford, Minister for Tourism, Environment, Investment and Commerce, who was off island.

Mrs. Mariko Jack, wife of the Governor Mr. Stuart Jack, cut the ceremonial ribbon and delighted other guests during a tour of the house when she sat played the family piano and said it had a lovely tone.

Also taking part in the programme were Pastor Otto Menko, soloist Mr. Rudy Myles and the George Hicks High School Campus Choir. The band Swanky provided entertainment before and after.

The Mission House is now open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 9am to 5.30pm, with the last tour at 4.30pm. Admission is CI$5 for adults and CI$2.50 for children under 12.