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Fr. Proesmans
Reverend Father Raymond Proesmans, C. Ss. R.

By Lennox Honychurch

Those who are old enough to remember the Point Michel Presbytery before Hurricane David in 1979 will recall the quaint old West Indian dwelling. It was a wooden house on a stone foundation surrounded by a luxuriant garden. The approached was through an avenue of palms leading to the front steps at the top of which was a jalousie door and one could look right through the house to the veranda on the other side. But most parishioners of Point Michel did not use the front door. They went off the path and around the house, for they knew, that there on the veranda, sitting in his rocking chair at the end of a long table upon which was scattered a confused pile of books and papers, was their parish priest Fr. Raymond Proesmans.

He was one of the last priests of the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer to wear the long jet black soutan, the black belt with the rosary of large beads and the stiff white collar that was the mark of his profession. He would cock his head sideways on your approach, pass his hand through his shock of white hair and give a familiar greeting, waving towards the chairs and bench that stood around the table. This was his studio, study, office, confessional and place of prayer or consultation as the occasion demanded.

Fr. Proesmans was associated with Pointe Michel for most of his life, but his earlier work was as priest for the St. Alphonsus parish and his contribution the development of St. Mary's Academy as teacher and principal of the school. He arrived in Dominica on 23 November 1934, just two years after the establishment of SMA and by the 1940s he was principal. He made a deep impression on his students for besides fulfilling the purely academic side of study he encouraged the boys learn more about the island life around them: the nature and history of Dominica and the society to which they belonged. This was new in a school system that was tied strictly to text book learning and the passing of exams. Fr. Clement Jolly remembers an unusual exhibition that Fr. Proesmans organised at SMA. It was a display of various types of local fish found in Dominica's waters, and as Fr. Jolly noted, he had a profound interest in all that was local. This was matched by his dedication to parish work and the mission of the church and of his religious order. His concern for education was evident not only at SMA but also later in his support for the St. Luke's School at Pointe Michel and for community work through such groups as the Legion of Mary.

Fr. Proesmans loved to stimulate conversation and encourage debate. In the 1950s he led a group of young students in weekly discussions on issues of the past and present to broaden their perspectives on life. He was a great fan of the British author and philosopher G.K. Chesterton whose words of wisdom he frequently quoted.

During the last decades of his life, from about the early 1950s to when he left Dominica in the 1970s, Proesmans was perhaps best known as the authority on the island's history. Although he gave the impression of being in no rush and under no pressure, he packed an amazing amount of varied activities into his day. In between his parish duties he found time to do an great amount of research among documents at the old Court House and Registry, where the House of Assembly is located, and at archives and among the Roman Catholic Church papers at the Bishop's House.

He wrote a massive amount on the French settlement of Dominica, on relations with the Carib/Kalinago people, the establishment of the church, the sugar and coffee plantations, the escaped slaves (the Negre Mawon) and the folk culture of the Creole society that developed as a result of all the mixing of people during those centuries.

Dedicated ladies at Goodwill and Ponte Michel typed out his scribbled lines, written in his stilted English, and turned them into manuscripts with some form of order. This was in the days before computers and only one carbon copy was made of each paper. These were bound into folios that sadly have never been published. Only one article on slavery among the French in Dominica was included in the book 'Aspects of Dominica History' printed for National Day 1972. In 1974, Fr. Proesmans was honoured with a National Meritorious Service Award for his contribution to research into Dominica's Creole language and history. He was fascinated with the philosophy behind Creole proverbs and the nuances of the Creole language. This he explored by mixing with the fishermen and farmers, the porters and tradesman of Pottersville, Pointe Michel and elsewhere. His afternoon stroll going home from work at St. Alphonsus to his base at the Roseau presbytery was a time for discussions and greetings and visits along the way. He collected proverbs and observations in little notebooks and when a new coat of arms was being designed for Dominica in 1960 he provided the motto we know so well that he had picked up from one of his informants: Apwé Bondyé se la té.

As his health began to fail the mid 1970s it was thought best that he should return to Belgium, although of course, left to himself, he wanted to remain in Dominica! He died in Belgium in July 1978 and a memorial mass was held in the Pointe Michel church which was filled to overflowing. When the choir sang a rousing rendition of the Te Deum, water came to my eyes as I remembered the day that I and some of his colleagues accompanied Fr. Proesmans to Melville Hall airport for his last journey. Just before he entered the airplane he stopped and turned around and looked towards the green hills, taking one last look at his beloved Dominica that he knew he would never see again.




 

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