By Lara Pickford-Gordon
Getting palms for Palm Sunday is hard work.
The palms we get at parishes to re-enact Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem were harvested by someone who most likely journeyed into ‘the bush’ to find them.
After 7 a.m. Michael Sookhan of St John the Evangelist RC Church, Diego Martin graciously took me to North Post Road to observe and record the process. The closer we get to the peak, about 2,200 feet, paved road is left behind as his car moves over a bumpy track which was recently cut because it was covered in high grass.
For years Sookhan, and any volunteers willing and able, accompany Cecil Toyer down a more than 60-foot precipice to assist with collecting the palm branches. This year, Alfred Patrick volunteered to cut, and Mario Findlay to gather and carry back up the trail. Toyer’s wife, Gillian is part of the annual exercise and is an experienced stripper of palms.
Toyer lives in the area and steps down quickly as if he was walking on a flat surface. In the car on the way to the site Sookhan tells me the terrain is “not easy”.
“Be very precise where you put your footing. One wrong step and you can hurt yourself going down until branches stop you”, he says. Trudging back requires the same caution. Sookhan adds, “It is not a terrain you can take lightly, casually”.
I have no doubt after taking the first few steps down the precipice, and as expected with my clumsiness, I fall and slide but between Sookhan and Findlay, I am back up and extra cautious.
Persons venturing into the forest also have to be careful not to get tangled up in vines which Toyer says the old people call ‘hold me back’. “You going through the forest and you ain’t see it and you feel something hold you back”. I get this experience first-hand. Another thing to avoid is getting the skin punctured by ‘dog teeth’– big thorns on a vine.
Toyer’s decision to take up cutting palms happened about seven years ago. A parishioner living next to St John’s had taken responsibility for getting the palms but had to pay. He did not think this was right and told her, “You will no longer have to pay for palms; that will be my work for the Church.” He arranges to have the Friday before Palm Sunday off from work in order to fulfil this commitment. “You can’t pay me for this”, he says.
The palms we wave on Palm Sunday come from a long branch. Toyer skillfully cuts the branch, and it is awe inspiring watching him balance on two branches in order to reach some good palms. He explains that he always leaves the young branches. “Even if this gets cut out, you come back next year, same tree [and] you get palm again. You cannot do that with coconut or any of the other palms; they will die”.
I am told the “hardest” part is dragging the branches back up the hill. When we are up the cliff with the last set of branches, Sookhan and Toyer join to help Gillian along with Ellen Findlay and Lester Wilson who had started “stripping” the palms which were taken up earlier.
Additional hands of Mario and Waldo Diaz also help to make work light. The branch is first softened by one or two stomps which splits it and reveals layers of palms. The separation of the layers by hand is “stripping”.
Thousands of palms have been collected for distribution at St John’s and Our Lady Mother of Mercy in time for Palm Sunday.