The iconic Elmslie United Memorial Church stands, sparkling white and solidly built, in the heart of George Town’s waterfront. This December the church celebrates its 90th anniversary and a programme of events has been planned to commemorate this milestone.
Building the Church
Completed in December 1922, the Elmslie Church was the first concrete building to be constructed in Grand Cayman. Other than the vents in the bell tower, which at one time allowed the sound of the bells ringing to flow out and which have now been covered over, the exterior of the building has barely changed in almost a century. Despite the hive of activity going on all around it and the massive changes Grand Cayman has undergone since it was built, the church appears to be unaffected by the passage of time.
Captain Rayal Bodden oversaw the building of the church that stands today. He was, however, a naval architect by profession and this was the first building he built. Not only that, but he had to travel to Jamaica to learn how to make the concrete blocks that would be used in its construction. More accustomed to building ships than churches, it took two years to complete the project and Captain Rayal left his personal mark on it in the form of a roof shaped like the upturned hull of a ship.
What’s in a name?
The church may not have been completed until the 1920s, but the Presbyterians had had a presence in the Cayman Islands for some time already – although that was something that came about almost by chance. Missionaries from the Presbyterian Church in Jamaica had set sail for Africa in 1845, with the aim of preaching the gospel in Nigeria. They never made it that far though. Instead they were shipwrecked on Cayman’s reefs.
Those on board soon discovered that only a stone’s throw from Jamaica there were islands with no organised church and so they appealed to the Presbyterian authorities in Jamaica to send help.
When nobody else volunteered, Reverend James Elmslie offered to come to the Cayman Islands and establish a church.
He travelled all over Grand Cayman on horseback, by boat and on foot, founding churches. Initially he encountered severe opposition both from the ordinary people and those in authority, who had little interest in religion.
He persisted, however, for some 17 years, eventually gaining more and more converts. In 1863 poor health forced him to return to his native Scotland but by that time he had started six churches with up to 1,000 members, out of a total population of around 2,000.
Although Elmslie Church was built several decades after Reverend Elmslie departed, it was decided that the church should be named after him.
Over the decades the Elmslie United Memorial church has occupied a special place in the history of the Caymanian people and has been the venue for many national events. It is also the church that any visiting members of the British Royal Family attend.
Today, the church stands as testament to the tenacity and resourcefulness of the Caymanian people, a shining example of how much can be achieved with so little. Indeed in 2010 it won the Governor’s Award for Design and Construction Excellence.
90th anniversary celebrations
In commemoration of its 90th anniversary Elmslie United Memorial Church is holding various events leading into the holiday season:
December 1: A Banquet dinner will be hosted at Cayman Prep School offering a time for celebration, fellowship and reflection.
December 6: A traditional Celebration Bazaar will be held at the church, beginning at 4.30pm.
December 9: An Anniversary Service will be held at the Elmslie church at 10.30am to which all members of the community are welcome.
A Sunday School Musical Performance will take place on later that day, starting at 6.45pm.