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Paying homage to Siparee-ke-mai
(Published May 10, 2015)
In the 1850s, Siparia was a sleepy little village lost in the high woods with a population of a few dozen people of mixed Amerindian and African descent. There were no public buildings since it fell under the administration of the Ward of Oropouche which had its seat at St Mary’s Village, in the County of St Patrick.
In the humble tapia church, however, was a little wooden statue possibly made by an Amerindian craftsman or santero, for the purpose of devotion. This statue may have come to the town as early as 1808.
By the 1870s, the Feast of La Divina Pastora was already attracting thousands from across the island as a French priest, Fr Armand Masse noted in 1875:
“At Siparia there is a virgin of great renown in the whole of Trinidad. She is called La Divina Pastora. When they were obliged to leave Siparia, to save this statue from profanation, the Spaniard hid her in the nearby forest where she was found later.
“She was taken back to the village and placed in a shrine, and then the church. Like all Spanish Virgins, that of Siparia is dressed. Remarkable graces were obtained by the intercession of Our Lady of Siparia.”
Among the devotees were Warao, people from the Orinoco Delta and hundreds of Indian indentured labourers who identified with the little brown image and called her Siparee-ke-mai.
Fr Masse recorded the hodgepodge of humanity in his memoir:
“All along the way yesterday, on the eve of the feast, I met pilgrims of all colours going towards the sanctuary.
“They were counted in thousands…The road is very difficult and extremely uneven. Among the vehicles which try to come to Siparia, several broke down on the road.
“One cab tumbled into a ditch; many horses took flight and refused to go further.
“All eventually arrived at Siparia though. Some Waraoons dressed in nothing are at the door of the church. A band of coolies arrives. They sing all night long. At dawn they go to bathe and then come to the chapel. They have brought two cocks which they will offer to the virgin (they call her Siparee maie).
“To make this offering they go to the foot of the altar with the cock and saying their prayers in a loud voice with arms extended, they go to the back of the church, untie the cock and set it free in the church. The old sacristan captures the cock which the cure will soon eat.”
The road described by Abbe Masse is none other than the Siparia Old Road which wends its way towards Oropouche, through Avocat Village.
The presbytery was an elaborate spired wooden edifice which stood opposite the church. It was constructed in 1850, and demolished in the 1960s. In this period, the church itself was nothing more than a simple wooden structure.
There was no grotto for housing the image of the saint, instead a contemporary of Abbe Masse describes the statue as having been placed on a large mound of dirt, and adorned with flowers.
There is no river near Siparia, so the pilgrims would have washed in one of the several wells in the area which were opened by Abbe Masse. One at Well Road still exhibits its original paving. Abbe Masse describes a later episode of the feast as such:
“The road from Oropouche to Siparia was full of coolies. The savannah of the church, the huts, the church, and the village were full. Without precautions being taken they would have set the church on fire with the numerous candles they were lighting.
“The lamps, though there were huge numbers of them, were not sufficient; the oil spilled all over the floorboards. They were disputing among themselves, jostling to obtain the oil, which was burning in front of the virgin.
“The coolies have a noisy devotion. They pray at the top of their voices but then they are distracted. When they prostrate themselves with their forehead on the floor, it seems sometimes they will split their skulls, so hard do they hit their heads against the planks.”
Holy Thursday is still known by some older people as the “Coolie Fete” when La Divina Pastora is removed from the church to the nearby parish hall so Hindus may pay her homage. The procession of the statue through the streets takes place on a Sunday and forms a colourful part of the town’s calendar.
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