St Francis in Galápagos

July 06, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Francis is everywhere in the Galapagos. The saint I mean. In every church there is some reference to him, from the statue of him with the wolf of Gubbio in Isabela (pictured) to the Church of St Francis in Santa Cruz has a large statue of him. I nipped in there briefly after the birthday party to check time (and length!) of services the following day and was struck, once again, how light and airy and pretty the place was. Light streaming through bright stained glass windows depicting all the flora and fauna endemic to the island. 

After the two hour evening service on Good Friday (See post - click here), the kids dragged their heels a bit. Isabelle especially as it meant picking her up earlier than she would have liked from a birthday sleepover on RAFTKIN. A mosquito bite on her ankle was rubbing against the strap of her sandals. She said down on a bench and refused to go any further. A couple of Jehovah’s witnesses (they are legion!) saw her sulk, sussed out the situation and the woman came over and teasingly, but not mockingly, offering to swap sandals with Isabelle. That did the trick and got her moving again! The Church was just opposite and I said she could slip her footwear off and rest her feet on the cool stone as soon as we got inside. As Isabelle’s feet cooled down, her mood warmed up as the service went along, the spirit there very much reflecting the stained glass, simply joyful. Once again, the church filled progressively as the service went along and we were the only gringos. The sermon was all about peace and looking for the good in people, as they are never as bad as they are painted, nor to be disheartened by those who look perfect, as they are never without their faults. While the priest talked, a guitar in the minstrel’s gallery struck up some classical notes of Rodrigo. Xavier found it distracting, but I thought it would give the kids something to listen to as they weren’t keen on having a blow by blow interpretation of the sermon! Later, the Our Father was set to “The Sound of Silence”, the congregation singing the introduction, an adaptation of the lyrics to a prayer, turning to instrumental while we all said the Our Father, and then back to singing the song again. This was followed by the sign of peace, all shaking hands, always my favourite part and a warm welcome here. One the way back from Communion I noticed a group of tourists in the doorway snapping away. Once again, kids, we are part of “The Galapagos Experience”! For the final blessing all the congregation went up and the priest sprinkled water over everyone, taking care to catch one and all, with great enjoyment. All of us left feeling very happy indeed and went off to the “Rock” cafe for a lovely breakfast, falling about laughing at the mural inside which depicts a tortoise-man stretching out his paw, ET style to the hand of God on a cloud. Brilliant! 

The following day I picked up a book in Spanish in a shop called When St Francis of Assisi came to the Galápagos. Wrapped in cellophane, with no way of browsing, I bought it on faith alone… although I believe Francis is one of those inspirational, charismatic figures in history that you don’t need to be Catholic, or Christian, to nonetheless respect and admire his actions and life philosophy. Take Zeferelli’s film on him in Brother Son and Sister Moon which I watched with the kids later - there is no depiction of heavenly voices or supernatural events - it is simply the story of a boy, and his friendship with Clare, in many ways echoing the dynamic, youth and beauty found in Zeferelli’s Romeo and Juliet. That it is underpinned by the flower-power philosophy that all can relate to is evident by the way Francis’ prayers are set to an entire score sung by Donovan, in much the same way the priest in the service above used Simon and Garfunkel! 

Back to the book, it turns out to be written by a theology professor in the style of a pseudo-children’s book, reimagining what would happen if the saint were to visit the island today. With the best will in the world - as a convent-educated Spanish-speaking Catholic whose first-born is called Francis - I find it a little too earnest, but very revealing about main issue concerning the Galapagos today. When Francis comes to the first island and is given a tour by kids (obviously unfamiliar wth the concept of Stranger Danger!) he lectures them on the importance of selflessness and conservation, not only because an egotistical use of natural resources is simply wrong, but because if they don’t, and there is nothing left to conserve, the “visitors” will lose interest and stop coming. The tourist dollar is a crucial part of the Galapagos economy, but I can hardly imagine the medieval saint advocating courting it, and imagine he already turns in his grave at the circus in Assisi. Still, the author is making a serious point highlighting the tension between what is good for the conservation of the island versus self-interest and various political shenanigans, and that future generations need a greater awareness of the consequences of their actions. In recent years there were a number of acts of sabotage by angry fisherman, in protest at rights curbed to prevent over-fishing, and an instance of one releasing six goats onto an island. This may not sound a very aggressive tactic, but it was done with the knowledge that wild goats do huge damage and the eradication programme, which has been running for years, reckons on a cost of 30,000 dollars per removal per goat. A look around at the rubbish collection and microbeads of decomposed plastic on beaches shows that not everyone shares the same interests when it comes to recycling and waste disposal.

What is clear though is that ultimately Franciscan spirituality, brought to the islands by Franciscan missionaries in the 1950s, who are still there today, does resonate with the the ideal Galapagan sense of identity, one in harmony with its natural environs. 

Photo: Halo Tortoise! Mural on the wall of the Church of St Francis, Santa Cruz


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