By Simone Delochan,
Fr Makhan rode home excited by his visit to the seminary, and told his mother, “I think I want to go there.” He had also met Fr David Oliveire, after whom a street in Penal is named, and whom he describes as a “tall Portuguese-looking fellow” with curly hair who played football for St Mary’s (CIC) with a “powerful kicking drive”.
The example of the local priests in CIC: Anthony Pantin, Malcolm Galt, and Knolly Knox had also been inspiration for his deep-seated desire to become a priest.
As teachers, there was a “different ethos” to the way they interacted with their students: “They didn’t shout and bawl at anybody…they organised the sports for the school. I was touched by the loving relationship—they would call every student by their first names…”
Life of a seminarian
He joined the seminary in 1957 and seminary life suited him perfectly. Fr Makhan says of it succinctly: “I loved every minute of it”. The day began at five in the morning, when the knocker, Hezekiah, came to the door to rouse the sleeping seminarians, to which the response was “Deo gratias” (Thanks be to God).
The rest of the day went like this: “You go to the washroom and shower quickly and you go to the chapel and sit quietly for half an hour. You couldn’t talk. That discipline touched me. Then a little bell went ‘ding’. You went to the room, tidied and fixed up your bed, and waited until another bell to tell you to come down for breakfast.
“You go down there without talking and somebody read the lives of the saints while we were having breakfast. That person would stay back and have breakfast by himself. Then they gave you ten minutes to take a walk around before you had classes. Classes began at eight o’clock.”
There were classes in Philosophy, Theology, Scripture, Social Sciences, Church History and Canon Law which the monks taught. Two other men had joined the seminary with him that year, making it a total of eight men altogether in formation.
Neither of these men made it to ordination. The first to leave had fallen in love with the choir mistress at Santa Rosa Church where he would go to help the choir and teach Latin songs. He had a beautiful singing voice, and one day quietly told his friends, “When you all go to Mass in the morning, you will not see me. You will see my two gowns hanging up.”
Fr Makhan returned from chapel the next day and he was already gone. He never saw him again but knows that he went on to marry the choir mistress. “People have different journeys but I know for myself, me eh going down that road! I not in love; me eh tracking down no gyul! I never went to party. I never play mas.”
The second was advised to take some time off two years before ordination, and he never returned. Fr Makhan, many years after, met his son. Formation lasted seven years, and in July of 1963, Fr Makhan was ordained.
The night before his ordination, he lay on the floor of his room, head on his pillow and prayed: “Lord, if I shouldn’t be a priest, let me die tonight.”
Mercifully, for the hundreds of people who have encountered him over the years, he lasted the night and awakened the next morning, “shocked to be alive”.
What motivates a man to become a priest? Fr Makhan says it begins in the family. He remembers both his mother and father as humble pious people, although at the time, his father had not yet converted to Catholicism.
The values and spirituality he had imbibed, rested in his family life. At five in the morning, while he and his siblings were up studying before school, his father would be kneeling in his khaki short pants, softly praying before leaving to drive his truck.
Although soft, they could still hear his prayer: “Jesus, keep me safe today…Jesus, bless my wife and children.” That image of Jaggernauth on his knees stayed with him. His mother Rita ensured that they attended Mass every Sunday.
He remembers too the catechism classes every morning in primary school with pupils gathered around the teacher in a semi-circle, and the questions and answers they had to learn from “the little blue book” that served for generations. “Who made me? God made me…” The non-Catholics would sit quietly at their desks.
Then finally, the example set by the priests he encountered while a student at St Mary’s. Ultimately, he firmly believes, people are called by God to certain professions: doctors, teachers, nurses, priests…The sum of the influences and inspiration culminated on that day in July, 1963.
Part of seminarian training was visiting the sick in Caura hospital where they would talk to and pray with the patients, and they alternated driving the seminary bus. On the day of his ordination, it was his turn, so he drove himself.
The cathedral was filled with his relatives who had taken the train to be present and support their family member. “A set of Indian people came—from San Fernando, the Chatoors. They passed into Chaguanas and took my families, the Francis people from Railway Road, all my cousins. When the train disgorged them, the drag brothers, the sandal makers and so on, when they saw all these Indian people, they said, ‘Aye, boy! Where all dem Indian people going?!’. Another one said, ‘Boy, they ordaining a Hindu priest, boy!’.”
He was composed. Archbishop Finbar Ryan officiated and he remembers people coming for their personal blessing after. Then they went to his home on Henry Street where his old teachers from St Mary’s were among the guests, including Anthony Pantin.
His first posting as Fr Michael Makhan was Erin.