Within a couple of years of the University (College) of the West Indies starting up in 1948, officials of the Anglican and Catholic communities were proposing the establishment of separate church facilities on the Mona campus site where the regional university was founded in Jamaica. In 1951, the college was already leaning towards establishing a single non-denominational place of worship. This would come to pass with the completion of the re-located and re-purposed Georgian rum storehouse, dedicated in 1960 and now known widely as the University Chapel.
But during the decade of the 1950s, students of various faiths worshiped in temporary campus chapels fitted within wooden barracks buildings that had housed evacuees from the British colony of Gibraltar during World War 2. Gibraltarians, later joined by mainly Jewish refugees from across northern Europe, lived on the site from 1940 – 75 years ago. Most of the Gibraltarians went home in 1944, after which the local military units moved in, staying until 1947. By that time, the vast majority of the Jewish refugees had found new homes. The UCWI took over the site in 1948.
The Gibraltarians, mainly Roman Catholic, had their own church on the site in what is now known as the Old Library. Small facilities were also put in place for Anglican and Jewish members of the camp community. When the military took over, they maintained the church, but it was presumably now Anglican, still then the established church in Jamaica.
When the UCWI took over, the church building became home to the library and remained so until a purpose-built library was opened. Then, a 1951 hurricane having taken the roof off a temporary campus chapel, the ‘Old’ Library once again became the site of campus worship. While most denominations used this building, the Roman Catholic community opted for an alternative site and worshipped in various other of the barracks buildings then remaining on the Mona site, until they had sufficient funds to built the Aquinas Centre on land identified by the university near to the University Hospital. That Centre was opened in December 1961.
Chaplains of all denominations continue to be attached to the University Chapel, and on Sunday December 6, a service celebrates 75 years of worship on the Mona Campus site – including the UCWI/UWI years and the immediate prior experience of Gibraltar Camp. A pop-up exhibition will accompany the service.
It should also be noted that the enslaved populations of the Mona and Papine Estates, the centres of which are now on the UWI Mona site, undoubtedly had worship traditions. Records show that some were baptised Christians and there are records of a London Missionary Society Papine Mission, established by plantation owner James Beckford Wildman, in the 1820s; but there is no evidence that this was located on the present campus site.