The Roman Catholic Church named for St. Joseph—the husband of Mary, mother of Jesus—is one of the most distinctive modernist buildings in Falmouth. Situated across the street from the ocean, its north entrance opens towards the water, with a front door of Italian copper. Its most distinctive features, eight curved and gabled roofs, can be interpreted as a reference to the tradition of building multi-pitched roofs in Falmouth, or more expressively, a series of irregular ocean waves or a collection of nuns’ wimples.
How it began...
Catholicism in Falmouth began in an organized fashion in the mid nineteenth century. Charles Moulton Barrett, a member of the prominent family who developed much of Falmouth, converted to Catholicism in 1862. His sponsorship of Father Joseph Sidney Woollett, a Catholic missionary to St. James, St. Ann, and Trelawny parishes, gave the faith a foothold in the area. Barrett invited Woollett to set up a mission on the grounds of his property in St. Ann, the first Catholic chapel in the northern part of the island. Father Woollett hoped to build a chapel in Falmouth in 1866, but the citizens were unable to raise sufficient funds for the building’s construction. His ambitions remained unrealized for another century, dating the construction of St. Joseph to 1966, the year the church was dedicated.
Jesuits from New England became deeply involved with Catholic mission work in Jamaica in the twentieth century. After a career in educational administration as the President of Holy Cross College, Rector of Cranwell School, and President of Boston College, Father Joseph R. N. Maxwell (1899-1971) turned to parish work in Jamaica. As the pastor of St. Joseph in Falmouth he initiated construction of “a church of his own designing adapted both to the new liturgy and age-old semi-tropical heat of Jamaica.” A. Benghait of Kingston assisted with the building’s engineering, though the design and plan, described as “the first of its kind in the Caribbean,” is attributed to Father Maxwell. The Vaccino Brothers built the structure.
St. Joseph is constructed of cast-in-place concrete and is circular in plan. The exterior features an alternation of rock-faced walls and inset entrance porches to create a dynamic façade. The interior is flooded with light from multiple sources, including glass windows on the lower level, a decoratively pierced concrete ‘breeze block’ halfway up the wall, and twenty-four louvered windows in the gabled clerestory above. On the interior, the altar is located opposite the entrance, raised on a platform. Rows of pews, capable of seating 500, face the altar.
The circular plan of the church reflects changes to the liturgy made at the Second Vatican Council of 1963. A significant outcome of this council was the active rethinking of Catholic worship space and architecture. Churches adopted the circular-plan with free-standing altars; spaces to encourage greater participation by the faithful during the celebration of the mass. St. Joseph sits historically at the turning point of a Catholic re-thinking of sacred space and simultaneously provided Falmouth with a significant modernist landmark.
There are 2 marble statues flanking either side of the entrance to St. Joseph but the origins were unknown for many years.
Finally, an explanation from Father Gerry Reid, a former pastor of St. Joseph was recently shared:
They are statues of Pope St. Leo The Great and St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine.
Rationale: “Saint names” of Leon and Helen Baker, a US based millionaire couple, who were friends and benefactors of Fr Joseph R.N. Maxwell S.J. (“Maxie”) a high level educator in the then New England Province, who helped funnel funds under Bishop John McEleney for major building work in Jamaica. Father Maxwell retired to Jamaica, ultimately to Reading in Montego Bay. Just before retirement, he was sent to Falmouth, as always to get a building up.
Bishop McEleney wanted the money offered by the Bakers for the Falmouth building to be used for at least 2 church buildings. The Bakers refused: either all the money to “our friend Fr Maxwell for a church building in Falmouth or no money at all.” Bishop McEleny caved and the result was a building designed to use up the full donation.
Maxie also built Sacred Heart Church in Reading, Montego Bay. And a few churches in Kingston.