Fr Michael Makhan was ordained in 1963, in the third batch of seminarians to be trained at Mount St Benedict, and the only one of his year to have made final vows. His movement to priesthood reveals the subtle work of God in taking this man from humble beginnings in Chaguanas to become one of the most-loved priests. He gives a picture of both the society and Church of the time and it is perhaps a good measure to see how far we have come in both spheres. This three-part series reveals the life of Fr Makhan as told to Catholic News’ writer/copy editor SIMONE DELOCHAN.
Fr Makhan is the fourth of eleven children born in 1938 to Jaggernauth and Rita Makhan née Francis. He attended Chaguanas Government school. This replaced the Canadian Missionary Indian school which provided education to the poor children of East Indian descent from the estates.
Education was emphasised as the way out of poverty by his parents and the parents of many of the East Indian labourers, and his earliest memories of his schoolmates were of shy estate children.
“What I remembered, the Indian children from the sugar factory area, Woodford Lodge area, used to bring their roti to school wrapped up in a paper bag for lunch. Some who lived not too far from the Chaguanas school would go home for lunch, as we did.”
The curriculum provided tutelage in the fundamental skills of Mathematics and English, and Domestic Science. His father Jaggernauth in his younger days had been a pupil teacher employed at $1 a week by the principal to teach the lower classes. His father, however, did not have the opportunity to further training at Naparima Training College as was typically the case.
Jaggernauth’s parents, who were originally from Calcutta, India and lived in a one-roomed barrack without ventilation, decided that teaching was not the way for their son. Instead he became a tailor trained by Basanto, a family friend.
Fr Makhan’s parents’ marriage was arranged by a pundit when Jaggernauth was 18, to a 15-year-old Rita Francis. “My mother and father got married quietly in the Warden’s Office, Chaguanas. There was no Hindu ceremony…From what my mother told me, there was no celebration. They went home and ate dhal, rice and roti.”
The Catholic background
His mother and her siblings’ conversion to Catholicism came as a result of a visiting Irish priest to the area, Fr Layne, who had learnt a few words of Hindi. It was with awe that he was looked upon as he walked the streets calling out to the labourers in their own language. Rita and her siblings were baptised on the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, and then changed their surname from Ragoobar-Maharaj to ‘Francis’.
The Makhan family lived on Railway Road close to the Catholic church. The road was a hub of activity, with crowds congregating to see the trains arrive and depart, vendors with windmills and ‘chillibibbi’. He remembers seeing Syrians with their bales of cloth for sale.
The actual Church environment was less than hospitable for the Makhans. He says: “When we attempted to go to the Catholic church, the priest was hostile and arrogant. Fr Max Murphy was his name…it was these kinda ‘high-falutin’ kinda people. We didn’t feel comfortable with them, so we went to the lower-class church, the Presbyterian Church.”
In the Presbyterian Church, the family found community. The Hindus sat on one side and the Christians on the other and they would sing Hindi songs. “I remember singing ‘Oh happy day’ and it was so exhilarating for us. I was about seven years. We loved going to the Presbyterian Church because the people were friendly.” The Catholic Church, he expressed, was an unfriendly Church because it was an elitist Church.
The Port of Spain Years
At nine years old, in 1947, he and his family moved to Port of Spain. William H Scott had asked his father if he was interested in another job option: “If you get a truck, you could haul materials from the brick factory, in Chaguanas, and you could supply me and I will sell it retail.” Jaggernauth got his licence and with a friend purchased a truck.
The family then moved to a six-bedroomed house on Henry Street close to Rosary Church. They were the only brown-skinned family in the area and received no welcome. He describes it as a culture shock.
“In Chaguanas everybody was friends. Everybody called out to each other. When we went to Church we couldn’t sit on the pews; we had to stand up on the side aisles during the Mass…We felt we had no roots here… Even when we passed them on the road, and said ‘Good morning’, they would turn their heads and not answer us.”
Rosary Boys’ and then St Mary’s College were his points of salvation. At Rosary Boys’ they would go to Benediction and he fell in love with the ritual of incense and the ringing of the bell. He became an altar server at Rosary Church. He joined the Legion of Mary at St Mary’s and later became Vice-President. Fr Reginald ‘Rex’ de Four was President.
After passing his A’Levels, he knew he wanted to become a priest and to join the Holy Ghost Fathers but this was quickly laid aside after a brief conversation with Fr Knolly Knox, who gently and euphemistically said that they were “not ready for you yet”. It was Archbishop Finbar Ryan who suggested he visit the seminary at Mount St Benedict.
So one Saturday morning, he rode his bike from Port of Spain to Mt St Benedict, pushing it the final metres up the mountainside to the small building. He saw a Brother feeding pigeons. He entered the gate and encountered familiar faces: “I saw Fr Oliveire, Fr Cyril Ross, Fr Hezekiah. I said wait, I know all of you.” He knew he had found the place for the important guidance in becoming a priest. “When I entered the seminary, I loved it.”