Most Bahamians are Protestants, but Cat Island has a strong Catholic tradition. It was home to one of the most remarkable priests of modern times, Father Jerome Hawes (1876-1956), the Hermit of Cat Island. An architect, he built five churches on this island in addition to his personal masterpiece, the Hermitage, which sits atop 206-foot Mount Alvernia in New Bight, the highest point in the Bahamas. Father Jerome lived here as a hermit for the last 17 years of his life.
On my last day on Cat, I started out early, drove south to the base of Alvernia, parked and climbed the steep path past 13 Stations of the Cross to the Hermitage. Prefaced by a 15-foot tall Celtic cross and a cave with a stone rolled away, the Hermitage is a melange of small buildings linked by a covered walkway -- a sleeping room, cooking room, guest room and small chapel near a medieval tower.
The villas and duplexes at Cat Island's Fernandez Bay Village are nestled in a pine grove.
I was alone at the Hermitage this morning. In the narrow confines of the chapel, I sat by the window and gazed out over the southern reach of Cat Island. The presence of Father Jerome -- this remarkable man whose footsteps I, an agnostic, had followed in the Out Islands of the Bahamas for years -- was palpable here.
Driving south on the Queen's Highway, I stopped at New Bight to visit Father Jerome's splendid Church of the Holy Redeemer. Though it lacks the grand setting of Father Jerome's two magnificent churches on Long Island, just south of Cat, Holy Redeemer -- consecrated in 1948 -- is arguably the summit of his achievement in church architecture. Outside, the limestone structure is angular and whitewashed, adorned with a bell tower and gargoyles. The main entrance, on the side rather than at the rear of the church, opens into a vaulted nave where a center aisle divides rows of pews leading to a lovely chancel, the apse dominated by a large portrait of the bleeding Christ flanked by Mary and Joseph of Arimathea. Round trellised windows and niches punctuate walls on which the Stations of the Cross are depicted.
Three miles farther along at Old Bight, I passed the ruins of an old plantation and stopped by another Jerome church -- the hauntingly beautiful, abandoned Church of St. Francis of Assisi, its gray limestone facade bearing an ornate dedication to St. Francis above the entrance, and inside, a pewless, hot and empty space presided over by twin angels carved in stone on the back wall. With no priest or nun living on Cat, this important church, like the plantation, is now ruining in the bush. Fifteen miles below Old Bight, I circled the roundabout at the southern extreme of the island and took the eastern route through Baintown, Zonicles, Port Howe and Bailey Town toward Columbus Point.
In Bailey Town, just past the skeletal ruins of another plantation house, I tooted my horn at the top of a dirt track leading to one of the least-known of Father Jerome's churches, Our Lady of Zion, a small rectangular sanctuary in a clearing of tamarind and sugar apple. By the time I got out of the car, an old lady in a red dress and a straw hat was making her way down the drive with the key.
Built in the early 1940s, Our Lady -- like St. Francis -- has not fared well. The crumbling interior walls are covered with cheap paneling. Yet it is not in ruins. Its few congregants have lovingly tended the place, like the corpse of a dear relative. Just before I left, the woman in red pulled back a curtain revealing a shallow sacristy that contained a wooden crucifix propped up against the wall. It was five feet tall, pristine, painted in still bright and vivid colors. In Christ's right hand is a round wafer, the miniature version of the rolled-away stone at the summit of Mount Alvernia, promising the Resurrection.
I was a trespasser in Our Lady of Zion. This icon -- the work of a great private man, long forgotten -- was made for his congregants, not for strangers. The morning's drive had been fun. But here in this hot chapel, gazing at this crucifix tucked away for decades in a tiny church on an obscure island, I felt a thrill that nothing -- not even a desiccated sea grape leaf rolling down to the water -- could match.
Marvin Hunt last wrote for Travel about the Bahamas' Long Island.
Details: Cat Island
GETTING THERE: Your best bet is to ticket the trip in two legs: D.C. to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Fort Lauderdale to New Bight on Cat Island. Sale fares of as little as $49 each way are common on nonstop service to Fort Lauderdale, although you may want to pay extra for convenient connection times. For example, a flight from Reagan National to Nassau on US Airways with short connections starts at about $237 round trip. Continental and Lynx Air (888-596-9247, www.lynxair.com) offer daily nonstop flights between Fort Lauderdale and New Bight; round-trip fares start at $353. In Nassau, Bahamasair (800-222-4262, www.bahamasair.com) and Cat Island Air (242-377-3318) offer nonstop service to New Bight from $150 round trip.
GETTING AROUND: There is no public transportation on Cat Island. Resorts offer bicycles for puttering around, but if you want to venture any distance from your base, you'll need to rent a car. You can drive the entire length of the island in a day.
WHERE TO STAY: Fernandez Bay Village (800-940-1905 or 242-342-3043, www.fernandezbayvillage.com) has six villas and nine duplex cottages nestled in a palm grove, ranging from $190 to $367 per night. Hawk's Nest Resort (800-688-4752 or 242-342-7050, www.hawks-nest.com) offers 10 rooms in a remote, lovely setting; rates from $155. Pigeon Cay Beach Club (242-354-5084,www.pigeoncay-bahamas.com) offers seven self-contained cottages that sleep two, four or six people, ranging from $160 to $375 per night. Greenwood Beach Resort (242-342-3053, www.greenwoodbeachresort.com) has 20 rooms in a spectacular setting, with doubles from $99.
WHERE TO EAT: Bahamian food is always fresh, often deliciously prepared, but pricey -- $8 to $12 per person for a basic lunch and $30-plus for dinner. Other than the island's resorts, however, Cat Island has very few restaurants. If you venture far from your base, take sandwiches and drinks with you.
WHAT TO DO: Most people spend their time in and around the water -- kayaking, swimming, snorkeling, diving and fishing. There are interesting caves to explore. A trip to the Hermitage at New Bight is a must, as is a visit to Father Jerome's churches.
INFORMATION: Out Islands Promotion Board, 800-688-4752, www.boipb.com/home.php. Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, 800-224-2627, www.bahamas.com.
-- Marvin Hunt