Lady Florence’s Island Legacy Lives On | Scottish Catholic Observer

First published on December 23, 2016 by the Scottish Catholic Observer


JAMES MCENANEY reveals the story of the English woman who built a chapel on La Gomera in 1935

In many ways the island of La Gomera, one of the smallest and least developed of the Canaries, seems the perfect opposite of its larger, more famous neighbours. This is not a place defined by flesh-covered beaches, crowded hotel developments or hedonistic night life; instead, the true value of this precious gem is measured in its stunning viewpoints and the faultless warmth of a people who understand just how lucky they are to call this place home.

Amidst all of this, however, it is simply impossible to ignore another charming feature of La Gomera: the beautiful, tiny chapels sprinkled all around the island, many just a few metres from the roadside. Some are found in the heart of the various towns and villages, but many stand, stoically and timelessly, on the edge of towering cliffs, looking down on incredible valleys, ocean views and improbable, picture-perfect settlements clinging to the rocky slopes.

There is a real sense of these buildings being woven into the history of the island itself, providing a physical link between the present and the past; their very existence a testament to the dedication and devotion of a people who have quite literally hacked their living out of the steep, volcanic slopes.

Every single one feels genuinely special but, in speaking with the people here, one name comes up again and again: Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Lourdes (Hermitage of Our Lady of Lourdes).

Locals enthusiastically describe a tiny chapel with a remarkable story to tell, hidden away in the heart of the ancient, UNESCO-recognised forest of the Garajonay National Park. It was, they tell me, ‘built by The Englishwoman, Doña Florencia’ in 1935, and was once the scene of huge fiestas that went on through the night. I must, they insist, find the time to visit.

The road to El Cedro, a tiny hamlet that is the closest settlement to the Ermita, is an old but perfectly formed ribbon of paved stone that wobbles and hiccups beneath the rear wheel of my motorbike. It does not reach all the way to the chapel itself, but that’s not a problem: in a place like this it would be disrespectful not to do at least some of my exploration on foot.

The narrow path meanders through the forest, mostly following the route of a shallow, burbling stream as it twists and turns its way up into the valley.

Along the way it skirts around a handful of scattered, empty houses, some little more than a stone shell in the process of being swallowed whole by the encroaching plant-life.

Passing by, the feeling is not dissimilar to walking through an abandoned croft or hamlet in the more remote areas of Scotland, the ghosts of lives not lived hanging in the air like fog. And then, finally, I see it: the briefest, brightest glimpse of whitewashed walls piercing through the vibrant greens and browns. Within moments the path emerges from beneath the canopy and the forest gives up its incredible secret.

The Ermita stands serenely within a bespoke, stone-floored clearing, its brilliant white walls awash in the flooding rays of the mid-afternoon sun. The only sounds are the low hush of the stream— the only water source on the island that never runs dry—and the melodious chatter of birds bouncing from branch to branch. The building itself is formed of a pair of rectangular, stone structures adjoined at the rear under a typical red-tiled roof. The only decoration is a small stone arch above the front wall—within which an ancient bell hangs below a plain white cross—and, below that, a rectangular, grey-stone plaque bearing a simple, fascinating inscription: “Rogad por doña Florencia Stephen Parry, En 1964, A cuya devocion mariana, Debemos la ereccion de esta ermita.”

Translated, it simply means: “Pray for Lady Florence Stephen Parry, 1964, whose devotion we owe for the erection of this hermitage.”

Born in India to a British father and a Greek mother, Florence grew up in England where she worked as a nurse and, later, as a journalist.

Having lost her fiancé to the battlefields of World War One, she sought to escape by starting a new life in the Canary Islands, taking on the role of governess to the children of a wealthy Italian, Mario Novaro Parodi, who owned a fish cannery on La Gomera’s rugged southern coast.

Florence worked for the family until the children had either grown or, in the case of the boys, been sent to Italy to continue their education.

At this point she relocated to the beautiful northern village of Hermigua and began working for the Ffyfes fruit company, arranging exports of bananas and tomatoes from La Gomera back to the UK. It was during this time that Florence began to visit El Cedro, forming a special bond with the tiny settlement and even keeping a small house there. Upon her retirement, she oversaw the construction of a building known as The House of Peace in Hermigua, then turned her attentions and energy to the construction of a chapel.

In 1935 she succeeded in ensuring that proposals to create a place of worship for the people of El Cedro were accepted and financially supported.

Perhaps in appreciation for what she regarded as the healing qualities of El Cedro’s remarkable climate, which she believed had helped address the symptoms of her asthma, the chapel was built in dedication to Our Lady of Lourdes.

Having converted to Catholicism in 1924, Florence finally saw her ambition and devotion realised with the completion of the Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Lourdes.

The rest, as they say, is history, and although the donations and support of many people were crucial to the founding of the Ermita, it is the vital contribution of Florence Stephen Parry that is still celebrated. Every year, on the last Sunday in August, a fiesta is still held there, with local people coming together for a joyous procession punctuated by the beating of drums and the cheers of the faithful.

Florence finally left La Gomera in 1950, moving to the neighbouring island of Tenerife. She spent her final years in the town of Santa Cruz where, in 1964, she passed away.

Although her last days were spent away from La Gomera, her memory lives on, forever bound to her wonderful, timeless gift to the island, its people, and anyone lucky enough to have the chance to see it for themselves.

Even now, in the second decade of the 21st century, it is obvious that the miraculous Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Lourdes remains precious to the people here. What is also clear is the real, lasting affection for Doña Florencia, the English woman who came to La Gomera to escape her past and became a part of the island’s history.

Faith, Education & the Curse of ‘Aye Been’

First published 8 Dec, 2015 by Humanitie – https://www.humanism.scot/what-we-do/humanitie/faith-education-and-the-curse-of-aye-been-by-james-mcenaney/

Spend five minutes listening to the grasping, ill-informed assertions of Scotland’s politicians and you could be forgiven for thinking that our whole education system is on the verge of collapse, the victim of ill-conceived and dangerously radical ideas.

The reality is, unsurprisingly, quite different; in truth, Scottish education is an area where genuine radicalism has been sadly lacking for far too long.

Despite our proud and progressive educational history, too many of our assumptions are now bound up in a fundamental stubbornness, an insidious conservatism which resists change for all the wrong reasons and can be summed up in just two words: ‘Aye Been’.

This attitude is the enemy of progress, encouraging us to cling to what we know even when it falls demonstrably short of our expectations and potential. It is a self-imposed ideological straightjacket masquerading as a safety net and ensuring that we continue to fail the next generation.

Despite our proud and progressive educational history, too many of our assumptions are now bound up in a fundamental stubbornness, an insidious conservatism which resists change for all the wrong reasons and can be summed up in just two words: ‘Aye Been’.

You can see this problem all over the education system, from the reluctance to properly embrace the sort of technology which has already changed the world to the ongoing obsession with ring-fenced individual subjects. Right now, government plans to introduce (or, more accurately, reintroduce) national standardised tests are casting a harsh light on our apparent inability to move beyond old, failed approaches to assessment. Plus ça change.

Another area where this mentality stifles vital debate is the question of religious faith in our schools. Viewed entirely objectively, the status quo is simply indefensible: were we building a public schooling system from scratch in the 21st Century, would anyone seriously be arguing that we should segregate four year old children based on their parents’ religion; that local authority education committees might be forced to appoint three unelected religious representatives; that children should have to be opted out of, rather than in to, religious observance; or that around a fifth of publically-maintained schools be permitted to operate openly discriminatory employment practices?

Even if such arguments were made, can we imagine a modern, democratic state with an increasingly irreligious population acquiescing to these demands if they did not have the weight of historical expectation behind them? Of course not, yet a collective blind-eye is repeatedly turned to blatant injustices because confronting them is seen as controversial, risky, difficult and – as far as politicians, policy-makers and various vested-interests are concerned – unnecessary.

It’s ‘aye been’ that way – just accept it.

A collective blind-eye is repeatedly turned to blatant injustices because confronting them is seen as controversial, risky, difficult and – as far as politicians, policy-makers and various vested-interests are concerned – unnecessary.

But sometimes change, however small, becomes possible; sometimes events have consequences which we don’t initially foresee; sometimes cracks appear in the hulking edifice of fearful stasis and through them creeps just a little light. This could – and certainly should – become one of those times.

Last year, Scotland’s 16 and 17 year olds took part in the largest democratic event in the history of this country as they were enfranchised for the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Across the length and breadth of our nation, young people listened, researched, debated and finally decided whether or not they thought that Scotland should be an independent country. Despite the well-worn assertions of those opposed to the move – who would have you believe that young people are a disengaged, uninformed underclass whose opinions are of no interest or value – Scotland’s youth did all of us proud by engaging with and participating in a decision which would affect their entire future.

As a consequence, 16-and-17-year-olds will now have the right to vote in all future Scottish elections. This long overdue shift is a victory in its own right, but it also opens up new and important questions about the rights and responsibilities of young people.

One of the specific areas where we should now be challenging the status quo is the issue of religious observance in schools. At present, only a parent can legally withdraw a pupil from acts of religious observance or instruction (and most parents are not fully aware of their right to do so) but this arrangement is no longer tenable – if young people are to be trusted to make decisions about the future of our whole country then surely they should have the right to decide whether or not they wish to participate in activities which may not reflect their own beliefs.

If young people are to be trusted to make decisions about the future of our whole country then surely they should have the right to decide whether or not they wish to participate in activities which may not reflect their own beliefs.

In the case of 16-18 year olds, the right to withdraw should be transferred to the students themselves, and must apply regardless of the type of school in which they are studying. If we really want young people to become Successful Learners, Confident Individuals, Responsible Citizens and Effective Contributors then they must be trusted to form their own opinions and make their own decisions.

Religious groups would likely line up with various voices from the education establishment to tell us that it can’t be done, that chaos would ensue if and when large numbers of students exercised their rights to have their beliefs respected; in doing so they would – ironically – prove that reform is urgently needed.

Such a change would be resisted precisely because it would represent a small but vital blow against the ingrained – even deliberate – complacency which shackles Scottish education. It could also prove to be a first tentative step towards challenging the normalisation of religious privilege throughout the education system by making one thing absolutely clear: ‘Aye Been’ is no longer good enough.