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.