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Priest’s death underscores Jamaica’s runaway murder rate, violence

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The recent killing of a Catholic priest in Jamaica -- a priest who cried out against the sort of violence that claimed his life -- has underscored the island’s runaway rate of crime and murder. The priest, Fr. Howard Rochester, was found dead Oct. 26 on the main road in a farm community outside Kingston, Jamaica. He had been shot in the head, the left side and hand.

News of Rochester’s death had an effect not only across Jamaica but in the United States, where Jamaican Catholics mourned a feisty young priest noted for opposing random violence.

The shooting came at a time when the island’s murder rate had escalated. More than 700 have been killed so far this year, prompting many Jamaicans to look elsewhere for a stable life. Some 300,000 Jamaicans, for instance, live in South Florida according to the Jamaican Consulate in Miami.

Jamaican law enforcement officials found no motive beyond robbery for Fr. Rochester’s murder, according to Jamaican newspapers. The priest’s car and cell phone were missing.

The travel industry, a staple of the Jamaican economy, has suffered as a result of the high crime rates. The Florida Caribbean Cruise Association last month denied allegations that their officials are encouraging passengers to stay on board cruise vessels when docked in Jamaica for fear of crime.

Yvonne Coke, a Jamaican writer living in Atlanta, said she hoped Rochester’s death would do more to prompt changes in Jamaica than the priest could have hoped for while he lived.

In 1994, Rochester had joined Coke in her ecumenical effort “Hands Across Jamaica for Righteousness,” founded to challenge the island’s citizens to return to the “God-fearing tenets called for in the Jamaican national anthem.”

“Father was so pleased: He shared my heart on that, and he asked me to come to his church and share it with his people,” said Coke, who is Protestant. Catholic Jamaicans living abroad should take an active role in bringing change to the island beyond sending money back home to relatives, she said.

“I hope this becomes a flash point around which to rally,” she said.

Rochester, 40, who had served most recently as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Spanish Town near Kingston, was not afraid to speak out for those who are voiceless, forgotten or lost.

“There seemed to be a fire burning in [his] heart, imprisoned in [his] bones,’ ” Fr. Gerard Reid, a close friend and Jamaican priest of the Montego Bay diocese, said in his homily at Rochester’s Nov. 8 funeral Mass at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kingston.

“This fire of God rose from deep within the life Howard drew from our Jamaican people,” said Reid, who traveled to Jamaica from an assignment in California after learning of Rochester’s death.

Encounters with violent crime have become all too frequent for Rochester’s parishioners.

In 1997, Brian Dixon, the organist at St. Richard Parish in Kingston, where Rochester was previously stationed, was shot and killed on the steps of the church after choir practice. Dixon was active in local politics. At the funeral service, Rochester issued a strong rebuke to local politicians for putting politics above the well-being of their country.

It was widely believed that Dixon’s murder was politically motivated and that Rochester’s homily created unease in church and civic circles at the time, according Fr. Michael Lewis, archdiocesan judicial vicar and editor of The Catholic Opinion, the newspaper of the Kingston archdiocese.

Last August another parishioner, Sylvia Edwards, a 48-year-old businesswoman, was abducted by gunmen demanding a ransom. Edwards was later murdered -- prompting Jamaican civic leaders to denounce the nation’s alarming rise in violent crime against its own citizens.

The Edwards murder weighed heavily on Rochester, said those who knew him.

“Personally, it wounded him. He hurt deeply over that,” Lewis said, speaking by telephone hours after meeting with some of the priest’s family. “There were many people close to him who were murdered, but he never gave in to the violence, to vengeance.”

Rochester, ordained in 1987, was an outspoken critic of the injustices of his homeland -- a conviction that prompted him to serve on the boards of Jamaica AIDS Support, the St. Richard’s Primary School and the Hope for Children Development Company, a Kingston-based organization assisting inner-city children.

He will be remembered especially for his role in creating youth groups to provide alternatives to the gang lifestyle, according to Lewis.

Angela Williams, a native of Jamaica and board member of the Palm Beach, Fla., Diocesan Office of Black Catholic ministry, remembered Rochester’s last visit there in 1998. He had been invited to lead a local day of reflection for the African-American and Caribbean Catholic community in South Florida.

“The youth were always attracted to him. He had altar servers, a youth choir. He made sure they were off the streets, he taught them whatever they knew,” said Williams, whose mother worked in the rectory in St. Richard’s Parish when Rochester was pastor there. “His homilies were powerful. He was fearless. He would challenge governments and politicians.”

Sheila Grant, an Anglican who took over for Rochester as board chairperson at Kingston’s Hope for Children Development Company, said the priest understood the importance of self-esteem and how religion could be used to build the self-esteem often missing in the poor.

“He could use the pulpit in a very effective way to empower people who need affirmation,” she said. “We have lost someone whose heart was really there.”

Tom Tracy is state bureau chief for The Florida Catholic.

National Catholic Reporter, December 15, 2000