Father Tristan Abbott celebrated his first Mass on island last Sunday
Growing up and studying in Cayman, then traveling and surfing in South America, teaching in China, working in construction after Hurricane Ivan – these are just some of the experiences that have helped bring Tristan Abbott to where he is today, at the start of his life as a Catholic priest.
Ordained at Corpus Christi Cathedral in Texas on May 31, Father Tristan returned to Cayman and celebrated his first Mass on June 8 at St. Ignatius Church on Walkers Road.
Several hundred parishioners attended and then rejoiced with him at a lunch reception in the school hall.
Coincidentally, Sunday was the Feast of Pentecost, and Father Tristan’s sermon compared the multitude of nations present in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost to the diversity of nations present in the parish today. He urged people to come out of their “comfort groups” and work together for the Kingdom of God.
The parish diversity was illustrated at lunch time, with Caribbean, Central American, Filipino and Indian food stations. Father Suresh, the pastor, spoke briefly and presented Father Tristan with gifts from the parish, a framed certificate of a personal blessing from Pope Francis and a vestment worn for offering Mass.
Father Tristan acknowledged these as well as the gifts of time and talent that parishioners gave in decorating the hall and preparing the food. The fellowship was a fitting send-off for the young man who will soon leave Cayman for his first assignment – a parish in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Tristan Abbot was born in England and came to Cayman with his parents, Colin and Moira Abbott, when he was 6. He attended St. Ignatius Preparatory School before moving through the Cayman Islands Middle School and High School. His A-level studies were at what was then the community college, now the University College of the Cayman Islands; his eclectic choice of subjects included biology, geography and Spanish.
During these school years, he enjoyed playing basketball and squash, running, diving and surfing. He was chosen for the first swim team Cayman sent to the CARIFTA games, then held in Kingston, Jamaica.
After completing his A-levels, he combined his love of surfing with a desire to put his Spanish to good use by taking a year to travel and surf in Central and South America.
Then it was time for academics again and he attended the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. “I switched majors about five times because I couldn’t focus on any one thing,” he acknowledged in a recent interview. “I was looking for something.”
Ready for graduation in 2001, he hadn’t decided what he would do afterward. A school friend who had gone to China kept encouraging him to come over also. He repeatedly said no, but with nothing else attracting his interest, he emailed his resume to two universities in China. “Within 24 hours, both said I should come as soon as possible to teach English,” Father Tristan recalled.
He stayed in China for two years, becoming more deeply committed to his Catholic faith. While on a religious retreat in the former Portuguese territory of Macau, he discerned a call to the priesthood and returned to the West. He pursued his vocation for a time with the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in the U.S. and then returned to Cayman.
He was here when Hurricane Ivan struck Grand Cayman in September 2004. He and his family left their home near the south coast and took refuge with friends further inland. Afterward, he joined the rest of the island’s residents rebuilding and landscaping. “I didn’t have any particular direction, so I was happy to stay,” he said, recalling a lot of time spent working on irrigation systems.
Benefiting from the prayers of family and friends, Tristan began to reconsider the priesthood. In 2006, he joined the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, which he was familiar with because his younger sister had joined. The society’s devotion to Mary, Mother of Jesus, and the Eucharist appealed to him, as did its teamwork approach to missionary work.
The life of a priest in a religious order can be very different from the life of a diocesan priest, Father Tristan noted when asked to compare himself with Father Joseph Kirkconnell, whose ordination in Cayman was celebrated on May 24.
Father Joseph was ordained by a bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit, Michigan, and will typically remain within that archdiocese [which includes Cayman], although the bishop may move him around. Father Tristan’s order encompasses a wider area and he may be moved from country to country.
Unless a diocesan priest is assigned to teach in a seminary or work in the bishop’s office, he will typically be involved in parish work, which includes preaching, administering the sacraments, overseeing parish organizations or running a school if the parish has one. A religious order may be asked by a bishop to fill needs for which he does not have resources, such as running an orphanage or managing an inner city drug rehab program.
At Father Joseph’s ordination, he made a series of promises that included obedience and consecration of self to God. Father Tristan’s promises included all three of the traditional vows – poverty and chastity as well as obedience.
The most difficult one to understand in a material world is probably poverty. But, as Father Tristan explains, “It’s not a vow of destitution.” Goods are held in common, he elaborated. “So if I have a laptop, it’s also available to my brothers in the community.”
The society is responsible for its members’ food, medical expenses and necessary travel. “We’re not against acquiring goods that are necessary for our apostolic work,” he said.
Distinctions pale compared to what Father Tristan and Father Joseph have in common, of course. Their priesthood gives them the power to say Mass and administer the sacraments, especially to give absolution in confession. They have both committed themselves to daily prayer and devotion in order to grow closer to God and serve His people.
Cayman residents who watched both of these young men grow up will likely remain interested in where their life work takes them in years to come.