A Tribute to Michael Baptiste
From the Caves of Cumaca to the Heights of Aripo - By Fr. Steve Duncan.
It's the end of an era; the "Sir" Michael Baptiste era.
Yes, Michael Baptiste, my Christian brother, the consumate Catholic teacher whose house was in Sangre Grande and home in Aripo and Cumaca. "Sir," whose historic walk from the Toco/Cumaca Road intersection to the then RC School building in Cumaca, defined his indellible passion as a teacher and man of God. "Sir," whose air-conditioned classroom at Aripo (St. Jude) R.C. School was like a community centre, where many retreated to beat the heat of their lives. 'Sir", who literally fell under the weakness of his determination to expose the talents and gifts of rural children to possibilities, providing spirituality as a foundation. The truth is there to see: "Sir" ascended the Heights of Aripo! "Sir", "the multi-talented Champion of Aripo and Mayor of Cumaca", as I fondly call him, self-less, dependable, energetic, creative, genuine, ever ready to saddle his Nissan 4×4 Ranger with items and the "Cumaca crew". "Sir" Michael Baptiste has become a respected household name in Aripo and Cumaca.
Many were the mornings when the rising sun visited us while walking the rugged terrain of Cumaca; our hearts burning within us as we explored Sacred Scripture in preparation for the weekend Liturgies. Sometimes, the rains drenched us, but even that was all counted as humour and God's refreshment. Many were the holiday camps, retreats with the children of Aripo, the hikes and river limes, the all-night prayer vigils, Masses at dawn, midday or midnight, whenever the Holy Spirit inspired us. Your 3:00 a.m. alarm woke the entire crew to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I can still hear the protest, "Sir!" but your booming voice singing familiar choruses ended any protest. You said it many times and you lived it: "Solamente Cumaca". It was God's gift for your peace of mind; your oasis, your delight.
Teaching children was your God-given vocation, your life and "Sir", you were a tireless teacher, catechist and lay minister in the vineyard of the Lord.
You opened yourself to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and we saw confirmation in the ensuing creative pastoral action. Consequently, the Aripo (St. Jude) RC School was energized and flourished like its national award-winning garden project. Indeed, we reaped and tasted the fruits of "Del 'Reapo" (roots bread, tropical fudge, saffron, lettuce, infused pineapple cupcakes, julie mango pepper sauce, mint, pineapple and mango suck-a-bag and cassava celery balls, to name a few).
The communities of Aripo and Cumaca, by extension, were brought closer together. The mountains separating them and deplorable road conditions were no barriers to your determination. You ensured that Aripo and Cumaca were included and felt belonged in all activities of the Santa Rosa/Malabar cluster.
You were their voice, inspiration and shining example of empowerment, active involvement, unity and inclusion. For them, you will always be their teacher, their "Sir". Yet, above all, etched in my memory will forever be that early morning when your blood was literally shed on the Cumaca Road. Sir, you were a good one! I can testify to that.
On January 18, 2023, after reflecting on one of my early morning conversations with Sir, I was prompted to write what morphed into "An Ode to Cumaca". But, Sir, the news of your being called to Mercy's eternal embrace prompted me to dedicate this "Ode to Cumaca" to you, its "Mayor":
Sweet Cumaca! If only she could talk! If only her river stone and gravel would rise up as witnesses! If only her rugged Platanal Road can attest to the hidden futures which traversed it!
If only the hallowed walls and corridors of Cumaca Nature Centre could consolidate its haunting silence and be a tower of strength for those who sweat and toiled for the best version of all who sought temporary residence in its accomodating shade!
Oh! Sweet Cumaca! Her quiet, welcoming nature runs deep and can fool the unsuspecting dweller, luring them into her sweet charm. Soon, they surrender themselves to her and lose themselves in her embrace.
But while they slumber, Cumaca reflects, meditates and waits for the moment of revelation, when reality hits and all that can be done will be to remind ourselves and admit in our hearts, that it was all there, veiled in the bosom and sweetness of Cumaca!
Sir, God has called you away from the caves of Cumaca and the Heights of Aripo, but their rivers will flow with your memory! May you find rest in God's eternal kingdom of peace.