Br. John Bartholomew Browne (1920-2002)

Brown, Br John Bartholomew (1920-02)

One day in the 1980s, in Mount St Joseph, Cork, I was discussing ‘emotional closure’ with Brother Bartholomew Browne. We both agreed that it was an important ingredient of a healthy emotional and spiritual life. I remarked that, essentially, it referred to a conclusion to a traumatic event or experience in a person’s life. Usually, it involved real or perceived wrongs done to us or by us. Then, I asked Bartholomew if he considered it equivalent to forgiveness.

‘Not exactly’, he replied. ‘It seems to me that there is an emotional dimension in closure, not usually encountered in confession and forgiveness. Maybe I can give you an example of one of my own personal attempts at closure.’

‘ The closure part of my story happened in 1968 in Bray, during a religious retreat. The events underlying the need for closure, however, happened in San Fernando more than ten years before that. You will recall that I resigned my posts as Principal and Superior and left San Fernando in 1956 because of a disagreement with the Higher Superiors. Though they initially welcomed and approved my building programme at Presentation College, San Fernando, they began gradually to put obstacles in my way, in particular refusing to sanction bank loans when they considered the costs to be escalating.’

‘I was not worried about finance, however, because I had a successful fund-raising scheme in place. But they refused to listen to my assurances and, in frustration, I resigned all posts of responsibility and returned to Ireland. And, thank God, the move worked out very well for me. I soon found my feet in the Irish Province and have been able to make a significant contribution there. However, I was very angry with our Higher Superiors and, with a view to eventually vindicating myself, I kept copies of all letters received by me from these Higher Superiors during the San Fernando years.’

‘However, in July, 1968, during a spiritual retreat in Bray, the retreat director spoke movingly about ‘emotional closure’. This prompted me to re-examine my differences with the Higher Superiors and to see the need for emotional closure for myself in respect of this part of my life. I spent some time meditating on the will of God in regard to this matter and on my own religious life in general. Then I came to a decision to destroy the copies of these letters, which I had retained. I lit a fire and put them into it and watched as they burned to ashes. The action seemed to set me free from painful memories of this period of my life. Thank God, I have never regretted this step.’

I was glad that Bartholomew told me this story because, having spent sixteen years in Trinidad, including four in San Fernando, I had heard many stories of his career in San Fernando, during which he had, on the one hand, laid the foundations of a great educational institution, but, on the other, seemed to have abandoned an enterprise at a critical moment in its life. Consequently, there were some unanswered questions. The answers to at least some of these questions may emerge in a careful consideration of his life. So, to this end, let us start at the beginning.

Birth and Early years

John Brown, son of Patrick and Nora Browne (nee Cahill), was born in Knockduff, Lower Meelin, Co. Cork, Ireland, on 4 April, 1920. He was baptised two days later (6 April) at Meelin Catholic church. He attended Meelin National School before entering the Presentation Brothers Juniorate (Coláiste Muire), Cork, in August, 1933. On completion of his secondary schooling, he joined the Presentation Brothers on 12 August, 1938, taking, as his religious name, Brother Bartholomew.[i] His new patron saint, Bartholomew or Nathaniel of the Gospel story, it will be remembered, was a friend of St Philip, who brought him to Jesus. The name Bartholomew means ‘gift of God’. St Bartholomew is believed to have written a Gospel, which was subsequently lost. He was martyred in Albanopolis in Armenia. His protection has traditionally been sought by Christians against nervous diseases.

At the end of his novitiate training, Brother Bartholomew made his religious profession on 12 August, 1940. After a year of practice teaching in St Joseph’s School, Mardyke (1940-41), he enrolled in De La Salle Teacher Training College, Waterford, where he qualified as a teacher in 1943. He then returned to teach at St Joseph’s School, Mardyke, Cork, where he played a prominent role in extra-curricular activities, including school choirs, sports and the religious organisation, the Legion of Mary. During these years, he also attended the National University of Ireland, Cork, and graduated with a BA degree in 1946. The following year he obtained his Higher Diploma in Education.[ii]

I first met Bartholomew in September, 1948, while I was a junior novice at Mount St Joseph, Cork. By this time, he had built up a reputation as a choir master and one of the elderly Brothers (Angelus Keane) decided that our choir was badly in need of coaching. In actual fact, our choir was not so bad: the problem was that the one time in the week when we were asked to perform was early on a Sunday morning, before breakfast. In those days, all Catholics had to be fasting from midnight to receive Holy Communion. On Sunday mornings, we had extra long devotions, including Benediction after Mass. The role of the choir was to sing the Benediction hymns and, at that early hour, before breakfast, most of us sounded hoarse. Old Brother Angelus, who had never been either a musician or a choirmaster, felt that the choir should be equally sweet at any time of day, so Bartholomew was called in to solve the problem.

The most suitable time for Bartholomew to take us for choir practice was after our evening meal, when we were all relaxed and in wonderful voice. After the first evening, he pronounced us up to standard and waited for Brother Angelus’ verdict on our performance the following Sunday morning. When it came, the verdict was discouraging: Angelus opined we were worse, if anything. This went on for some time until Bartholomew came to the conclusion that timing was the problem. But the time-table, in those days, was immutable and our choir continued to underperform on Sunday mornings before breakfast.

Having volunteered for the West Indies, Bartholomew was chosen to join the San Fernando community in December, 1948. There, he was also prominent in extra-curricular activities, including sports, gymnastics, the Catholic Evidence Guild and the Legion of Mary. In 1952, he was appointed Superior (1952-55) and Principal (1952-56) at Presentation College, San Fernando. Immediately, he set about a large building programme, which resulted in a new classroom block, facing Coffee Street (now known as Brother Brown Block), a new school auditorium and a new 12-bedroom house for the Brothers. During these years, he was also busy organising fund-raising activities and seeking donations from local business and industrial concerns.[iii]

Bartholomew was an active member of the Association of Principals of Assisted (i.e. Denominational) Schools of Trinidad and Tobago. At a meeting of the Association held in Port of Spain on 19 November, 1955, it was unanimously agreed that Bartholomew would be the representative of the Principals of Denominational Secondary schools in all negotiations with the Government. He also became the Association’s representative on the Government-appointed Hammond Committee on Education. This committee made what was then considered a revolutionary proposal, namely, that Government would pay the salaries of all approved teachers in all secondary schools in Trinidad and Tobago. To the surprise of many, this proposal was adopted by Government, and, ever since, the salaries of all staff in Assisted Denominational schools in Trinidad and Tobago have been paid by Government.[iv]

The late Sister Magdalena McBride (whose uncle, Major John McBride of Boer War fame, was executed as one of the leaders of the 1916 Irish Rebellion), told me an amusing story about Bartholomew during his days in San Fernando. At that time, since few had private cars, most people travelled from San Fernando to Port of Spain by shared taxi. This is still a much- used travel facility in Trinidad, except that, nowadays, maxi-taxis are used as much as the ordinary saloon car. Whenever Bartholomew travelled by taxi, he invariably got sick and had to stop on the way at Couva, where he visited the Holy Faith Convent. After a relaxed cup of tea, he was sufficiently recovered to continue his journey to Port of Spain in another taxi. Bartholomew was, consequently, a regular and welcome visitor at the Holy Faith Convent, Couva. After a couple of years, however, Bartholomew obtained a second-hand car. Thereafter, he always drove to Port of Spain for his many meetings with officials in the Ministry of Education. One curious result, noted by Sister Magdelena, was that from the time he got the car and started driving, Bartholomew never again got sick during the journey to Port of Spain. Neither did the Sisters receive regular visits from him. Some years later, when I took up residence in Chaguanas and got to know the Holy Faith Sisters in Couva, Magdelena told me the story.

Bartholomew was also a friend of Mr Roy Joseph (1909-1979), a prominent politician in San Fernando and, for a time, Minister of Education and Social Services (1950-56). Roy served as Mayor of San Fernando for two terms (1946-47, 1947-48) and was a prominent and successful politician before the advent of political parties in Trinidad. Of Syrian extraction, and always courteous and polite, some ascribed his political success to the fact that he steered a course between the vested interests of the two larger ethnic groups in Trinidad (Indian and Afro-Caribbean). There is no doubt that the fact that Roy Joseph was Minister of Education helped clear the way for a substantial grant for the new building scheme of Bartholomew at Presentation College, San Fernando, in 1956.[v]

In passing, it might also be noted that, while in office, Minister Roy Joseph, gave an undertaking that the Government of Trinidad and Tobago was willing not only to give approval, but also a building grant, for a new co-educational Catholic Teacher Training College. This was a most significant event. However, Roy Joseph lost his seat in the general election of 1956, and the new party that took office and formed the Government, under the leadership of Dr Eric Williams, was avowedly against a separate Catholic Teacher Training College. When the Archbishop of Port of Spain tried to follow up the promise given by Roy Joseph, he was told that there was no record of such a promise or decision! Archbishop Finbar Ryan went on record in this matter:


Twice in public and more in private, the then Minister of Education (The Honourable Roy Joseph) assured us that our scheme had been accepted by Cabinet and that financial assistance would be forthcoming in accordance with the provisions of the Education Ordinance. After the last Government took over, we were informed that there were no records corroborative of Mr Joseph’s assurances’.[vi]


The Catholic Church, consequently, lost the last opportunity to have a new Catholic Teacher Training College.

Though extremely successful as a school leader, especially in the matter of envisioning the future of a school, Bartholomew was, in day to day routines, impatient and, at times, brusque. Moreover, he was not hesitant in stating his views, and these were often in forceful language. The view of the Presentation administration would appear to be that he was very much a task-oriented person, good for a crisis, especially when decisive action was required, but not ideal in ‘times of peace’. The range of his vision for the future of Presentation College, San Fernando, also worried the Higher Superiors. Thus, while the superiors gave approval for a college assembly hall, Bartholomew gave them an auditorium, with a spacious balcony, an orchestral pit and separate back-stage dressing rooms for ladies and gentlemen. While the superiors approved the provision of additional science laboratory facilities, Bartholomew gave them six laboratories: two Chemisty laboratories, one for juniors and one for seniors; two physics laboratories, one for juniors and one seniors, two biology laboratories one for juniors and one for seniors. While the superiors recommended retaining the old Colony House as a dwelling for the Brothers until funds were available to build a new house, Bartholomew argued that it would be cheaper to do all the building (school and dwelling house) together. He accordingly demolished the old wooden building and replaced it with a new house with twelve bedrooms, parlours, dining room, community room, kitchen, servant quarters and a purpose-built oratory.

Since money was not to hand at the time to pay for all these buildings, and the General Council of the Presentation Brothers in Ireland was unable to lend such a large sum of money, it had to be borrowed from the bank. At the same time, Bartholomew was ever-active devising ways of obtaining donations for the College and planning fund-raising initiatives. When, however, Bartholomew began to draw up new plans to renovate and modernise older College buildings, the superiors began to express, first hesitation, then dismay and, finally, determined opposition. Numerous letters were exchanged between Bartholomew and the Higher Superiors. His standing with the superiors had now come full circle. Instead of the earlier letters of congratulation and affirmation, there now came calls for caution and expressions of doubt as to the wisdom of his policies.[vii]

It was within this context that Bartholomew resigned as Principal and returned to Ireland in July, 1956. That he quickly adjusted to new circumstances, and that his superiors still recognised his leadership qualities, is evident from the long list of appointments he held during the subsequent thirty years of active service. The very next year after returning, he was made Principal of the South Monastery School, Cork. The following year, he was made Principal of Scoil Chríost Rí. Soon afterwards, he was appointed full-time Director of Vocations. His next appointment was as Principal of the Juniorate, Coláiste Therése, Greenmount (1962-1964). After this, he was appointed Superior (1966-69) and Principal (1965-74) at Presentation College, Bray. Here, also, he began a large building programme, resulting in a completely new building, including a swimming pool, and new playing fields, for the College. In 1974, he was appointed Provincial of the Irish Province, a position he retained until 1981, when he was elected Assistant General. The same year, he was appointed Principal of Presentation College, Mardyke, Cork, where, again, he re-housed the college in a completely new building. This task was completed in 1985. Having reached compulsory retirement age that year, he retired as Principal of Presentation College, Mardyke, Cork, taking up, instead, the role of Director of religious vocations. He was re-elected Assistant General in 1987 and finally retired in 1993. He spent his final years in Maiville, Cork, where he suffered a stroke in 2002. He died at Whitefriars Nursing Home, Glanmire, Co. Cork, on 9 September, 2002, and is buried in the cemetery attached to Mount St Joseph, Cork.[viii]

I followed in his footsteps when I became Principal of Presentation College, San Fernando. I also lived with him when we were both Assistants General at Mount St Joseph from 1981 to 1993. He was a man of great energy, who had no thought of sparing himself, and whose greatest satisfaction was any ministry likely to spread the Kingdom of God on earth. He was also intensely committed to the congregation of the Presentation Brothers and to their ministry to young people. Later, when I learned about the Eneagram system of personality classification, I felt that he was a typical example of the person whose feelings are centred mainly in the gut. In the Enneagram typology, Bartholomew would appear to be an ‘Eight’. He was a natural leader; was moved by real or apparent injustice; liked the use of power (albeit for the best of motives); disliked introspection, preferring action; was forceful, occasionally even aggressive; found it easy to make decisions (even if sometimes lacking all the facts). One of the most fascinating things about him to me was the way one could see his feelings reflected in his facial expression. When he felt strongly about some issue, his features reflected this and one could almost sense waves of energy emanating from him.[ix]

The physical plant at Presentation College, San Fernando, owes much to his vision and determination. He was also an effective extempore public speaker and the older past students of San Fernando have many fond memories of him. In his own way, he forged a wonderful spirit of community among them, and, long after his departure from San Fernando, they would speak affectionately to me about him. He was a brother of Brother Plunket Brown, also in the Presentation Brothers.


[i] Presentation Brothers’ Archives, Mount St Joseph, Cork, (hereafter abbreviated to PBA MSJC), JB Browne file

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Archdiocesan Archives, Port of Spain (hereafter abbreviated to AAPOS), Education File, 1955.

[v] Anthony, Michael, 1997, Historical Dictionary of Trinidad and Tobago. London: Scarecrow Press, 321.

[vi] AAPOS, Education, Ryan to Pierre, 1 June, 1962.

[vii] Private Conversation, JB Browne and JM Feheney, 1988.

[viii] PBA MSJC, JB Browne file.

[ix] Riso, DR and Hudson, R., 2003, Discovering Your Personality Type.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 80.