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Ministering in the parish and the prison – Fr Makhan part 3

Fr Michael Makhan (left) with a group of children.

By Simone Delochan, sdelochan.camsel@rcpos.org

Fr Makhan was sent soon after his ordination to Erin as assistant priest for “more reasons than one”. In the early days of the diocesan priests, according to Fr Makhan, there was some conflict with the Irish priests.

Certainly, at the very least, respect was hard earned. In correspondence in 1975 to the “Very Reverend and dear Father Provincial”, an uncited Dominican priest writes: “…the missionary today has to be concerned much more with working WITH the local Church than FOR the local Church. This is especially true of the local diocesan clergy which, whatever be the reasons, have been and still are to some extent classified as second class” (158, Extracts from the Archives of the Irish Dominicans in Trinidad and Tobago, 1895–2018).

Archbishop Anthony Pantin, he says, had vision for the direction of the local Church, foreseeing that there would not be the large number of Irish priests maintained in Trinidad. “…it was a changing Church. The nations were now waking up.”

The Archbishop began putting local priests in “certain key positions”. Fr Makhan narrates one occasion when he had an unpleasant experience with an Irish priest. He had been sent at the behest of Archbishop Pantin to a particular parish on the north coast which had no priest for a few weeks.

After finishing the Masses, he went to the dark presbytery and began settling in for the night. “Just as I lie down, I heard knocking on the door and a voice shouting at me ‘Get out of my house!’ using violent language.” In the exchange which followed the demand that Fr Makhan leave the presbytery was repeated.

“I was shell-shocked. I was a young priest in my thirties and the Archbishop had sent me. I put my shoes back on and left. I drove back to the Cathedral in tears at 10 o’clock in the night….The transition period from Irish to local was not easy…” He mentioned nothing of the incident to Archbishop Pantin.

Overall however, he loved doing parish work, and children and poor people were particularly close to his heart. He would take chillibibi to distribute to the children and ask his sisters to make tamarind balls for them. Often, he said, he would pay the funeral expenses for families who could not afford to.

“Sometimes when I saw the poor people in the parish, I would go to the funeral agency, and say, ‘I would handle that, eh’. I used to ask for money not for myself but to pay the funeral agency.” Often, in the requests, the response was “Allyuh priests always asking for money”.

Fr Makhan emphasised that the Church had to show poor people that it cared and compassionate listening was a necessary practice for any priest. He stayed in Erin for three years working with then Fr Urban Peschier, then three years at Santa Rosa in Arima with Fr Fred Patience.

Stories of life behind bars

Compassionate listening was much utilised during his prison ministry in the 1970s again at the request of the Archbishop. Asked if he was ever tempted to refuse, he answered: “No way! I never said no to anything I was asked because uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. The man in charge has to have support.”

Prison ministry had a deep impact on him. While sitting on the bench in Remand Yard, the prisoners would tell him their life stories and he realised that many came from lower class homes, with stories of abuse, neglect and deprivation.

One man in particular he says “converted” him. For the sake of confidentiality and respect, he will be referred to as ‘BR’. BR had murdered his wife. He was drunk that day. They got into an argument, and as was her typical behaviour, she began to hit him. BR had a photo of his family with him in his cell. They were, Fr Makhan observed, a united family. “He converted me. He said, ‘Father, it could happen to anybody’.”

There was another more painful facet to the prison ministry which was witnessing hangings. Fr Makhan refrained from describing the process, but said it was “brutal”. The rope was like the rope used to tie cattle.

Yet another prisoner became a friend to him, Kissoon, a car thief who had been charged and tried for murder.  Kissoon maintained he was innocent. On the day of his hanging, he asked Fr Makhan to walk with him. “On the morning of the hanging, I crying and he crying. He held my hand for the first time. He said to me, ‘Rev, I going…’.”

Some days after while praying at Kissoon’s grave, some men showed up, saying that they wanted to visit the grave. The caretaker directed them to Fr Makhan and they introduced themselves as friends of Kissoon. One of them turned to Fr Makhan and said: “Rev, we could tell you something? Is we who kill the man. Not Kissoon.”

Emotionally draining is how he describes prison ministry but fulfilling, but whenever he witnessed a hanging, he would spend the day with Rita, his mother, to get over the trauma.

Following his prison ministry, he was sent to Grenada for four years, 1976–1980. The experience apart from doing parish work, brought him close to his love of teaching and prepared him for his tenure at St Joseph College back in Trinidad when he returned.

Continue reading:

Seeing God in everything… – An introduction by Fr Makhan

Fr Makhan’s faith journey – Fr Makhan part 1

Living to be a priest – Fr Makhan part 2