Picnicking with Father Jerome

Cat Island's Hermitage is the Bahamas' best kept secret.

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Towering over a green landscape, the stone monastery-in-miniature stands abandoned, looking like a vision of Ireland. That is, until you gaze westward toward the brilliant, blue-green bands of shallow water below, which remind you that this is a Bahamian place.

The Hermitage, as it is called, is the crown atop Mount Alvernia on Cat Island, the highest peak in the Bahamas archipelago, though it rises a mere 206 feet above sea level. This one-man monastery was the work of its sole resident, a brilliant and eccentric Roman Catholic clergyman who called himself Father Jerome. Anyone can visit The Hermitage, which is unlocked and unsupervised and may well be one of the greatest picnic spots on earth.

Father Jerome, who lived from 1876 to 1956, was a trained architect who designed and built many churches in the Bahamas. Their styles vary, but one of the most stunning-the Catholic church at Clarence Town on Long Island-could be described as Greco-Celtic with a Moorish influence so often found in old Mediterranean architecture. It is one of the most beautiful buildings in all the islands.

It was Father Jerome's second church in Clarence Town. He had overseen the construction of the first one year before converting to Catholicism, when he was serving as an Anglican priest. His conversion suggests that the British brand of Christ worship was too tepid for this deeply spiritual Englishman.

Father Jerome will be remembered for his churches. Standing atop peaceful, windswept Mount Alvernia, however, you would be tempted to consider this place Father Jerome's masterpiece. Father Jerome built The Hermitage himself, stone by stone, each of which he personally hauled to the summit. There are two paths: one steep and direct; the other longer and less strenuous. Most of us would push our heavily laden wheelbarrow up the latter, but one suspects Father Jerome cherished the more difficult of the two because he decorated it with concrete bas-relief "stations of the cross."

"A proper church is no mere assembly hall, theatre, or auditorium for preaching and community singing, but it is first of all a place of sacrifice," Monsignor John Cyril Hawes wrote years before he assumed the name Father Jerome. "It should breathe forth an atmosphere of prayer of religious awe and supernatural mystery."

Even in the Hermitage's tiny chapel with its single pew, Father Jerome succeeded in creating that atmosphere. A few yards away, his tiny sleeping quarters features his simple planked bed, no bigger than a ship's berth. In the stone tower a big bell still hangs, now rusted and silent.

If you have thoughts of a Bahamian cruise, consider a layover at Cat Island. Springtime is best because that's when settled weather turns New Bight, and indeed the entire 45-mile western shore of Cat into a peaceful beach anchorage. Indeed, like the other Out Islands, Cat has miles of sandy beaches, beautiful water, friendly faces and bountiful fishing, but only on Cat will you be able to commune with the spirit of Father Jerome. Surely the architect-priest would forgive your trespass if you sat down at his place for lunch and a bottle of wine.