Century-old Gun Bay church in limbo

Church member Frank Conolly visits the building shortly after it closed last year. - Photo: Jewel Levy

One year and eight months after the doors were shuttered, still nothing has been decided on the fate of a 109-year-old church in Gun Bay, East End.

The Gun Bay United Church, formerly the Presbyterian church, is thought to be the oldest surviving church building in the Cayman Islands, and to many in East End it represents a pillar of the community. In deteriorating condition, it had at least one beam separating from the structure, and cracks in the walls, before it was closed suddenly.

Church members were given letters telling them the closure was due to structural problems with the building.

At the little roadside church, everything still sits ready for the congregation to resume service.

An organ, which elder Frank Conolly said the church bought for $10,000 shortly before it closed, and a piano that cost $7,000 are slowly going to ruin, while hymn books still line the backs of pews and a bible lies open on the pulpit, ready for the pastor to begin his sermons.

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For now, the 20 members of the congregation are worshiping at the William Allen McLaughlin Civic Centre in East End with new pastor Alice Blair.

Pastor Blair said she was told the old church building was not conducive for people to worship, and that there were problems with the ceilings and floor. She said she was also told the building was being preserved for national heritage, and there was a committee working to get it restored to a point where it would not endanger anyone’s life.

“[There’s] nothing really we can do with the church, except to kind of prop it up to keep it from falling down, and maybe eventually turning it over to the National Trust for preservation since it’s one of the oldest buildings in Gun Bay,” said church elder Vernie Watler-Harris.

To keep the organ and piano from deteriorating, the air conditioning is being kept on.
“We can’t take [them] to the Civic Center because we are leasing … we probably will have to get storage to put the things [into] until we build a sanctuary,” she said.

The Cayman Compass previously reported that Bryan Bothwell, with the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, which is in charge of the church, said professional consultants had advised the church that the damage to the building could have been caused by stress or seismic activity.

The Gun Bay Congregational Board then made the decision to suspend the use of the sanctuary as a safety precaution, because the structure had been deemed unsafe to accommodate any meetings.

That’s when members held a meeting to seek a new location for church services for the Gun Bay community.

“We are in the process of looking for property to build a church, but we don’t know what will happen because finding property in Gun Bay is the problem. We found two pieces but nobody wants to sell,” said Ms. Watler-Harris.

With regard to the old church, Mr. Conolly said he heard that the church board had discussed repairs but members would still not be able to use the church.

“At the Gun Bay church, we do not have a car park and there is nothing really we can do to expand. If we are talking about growth, we would still have to find a place,” said Ms. Watler-Harris. “But the longer we take, the more land becomes expensive.”
Church history

The history of the Presbyterian church in Grand Cayman, now known as the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, had its true beginnings because of a shipwreck.

Historical records state that in January 1845, the Weymouth, a large schooner, was wrecked off the coast of East End. On board was the Reverend Hope Masterton Waddell, a Scottish missionary who had spent time in Africa, who was on his way from Jamaica to Scotland via New Orleans. After meeting the East Enders, whom he termed “wild and reckless-looking colored men,” he agreed to share spoils from the damaged vessel in exchange for assistance. Rev. Waddell and his wife, the captain and his lady, and the crew moved in with the locals leading the salvage team.

At the time of the shipwreck, the island had about 1,500 inhabitants and the Rev. Waddell reportedly found the people of East End and George Town God-fearing and anxious for the word of God. His family left 10 days later for New Orleans and ultimately to Calabar, Eastern Nigeria.

In 1846, the Scottish Missionary Society sent Reverend J. Elmslie to Grand Cayman. The United Church at George Town was given the name Elmslie Memorial, honoring the first resident Minister of the Presbyterian Church in Grand Cayman.

It is not known what year the first church structure was built on the Gun Bay site, but it is known that it was destroyed by a storm in 1903. The present church was built in 1907.

The first elder to assist the church was Elder Joseph Watler, grandfather to the late Reverend Crosby Watler. Another elder who was a pillar of the church was Joseph Armstrong Watson.

When the church was built, most ministers and students traveling to church made the journey by horseback. Oftentimes, these persons were given board and lodgings till the next day because of the long journey.

Records from the Presbyterian congregational papers show payments to the ministers for services ranging between two shillings to four shillings depending on the distance involved. In 1929, a ministers’ yearly stipend was 7 pounds, 10 shillings. Payments were also made to the person ringing the church bell.

Women also played an active part in the church and services. In 1930, Dosie Watler was appointed “Keeper of the Lamps,” to ensure the lamps were lit well in advance of the evening meetings. Christian Endeavour, the Woman’s Guild and the Christian Youth Service were all started in the church.

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  1. A 109 years of history and historical building , how many old buildings that Cayman Islands still have standing ? Why can’t this very old Church be restored to a safe condition and turned into history museum and tourism attractions for the benefits of East end , and stop playing politics with such historical building .

  2. I have read this article again of the 109 year historical Church , and I hate to see and know that it would be demolished because of the lack of foresight , just like the equipment that was purchased just before the decision to close the doors .
    I am all in favor of the district having a church a place of worship , but we also need to preserve our Islands history and historical buildings too . They say that there’s no parking space , but I see alot of space to build around that 109 year old historical church to preserve it and make it a place for everyone to see and remember and enjoy . So let us all put on our thinking hats , and not think that a new church is all we need for the future.