Saint Michael’s Cathedral is also the Parish Church of Saint Michael, and as such it is about the fourth structure to have been erected since the settlement of the Island.
Barbados (named on early maps – Saint Bernard) was first claimed as an English settlement in 1625 when a cross was planted on the beach at Holetown or Jamestown in the first year of King James I of England. Early settlers in Barbados brought with them the Christian religion, predominantly Anglicanism, and there was also a small number of Quakers and Jews. The Elizabethan Vestry system came to be adopted and the Island was firstly divided into six parishes (later extended to the eleven civil parishes which existed until recent times.) The parish of Saint Michael and Saint George formerly served as a united parish with the Parish Church of Saint Michael situated in the City of Bridgetown. The first Church of Saint Michael, a wooden building, was built about 1641, in the reign of King Charles I, on the site now occupied by Saint Mary’s Church. It was described as a “small and primitive building.” The building soon proved to be inadequate as a City Church and a new site was given by Col. William Sharpe and the Vestry undertook to build a stone Church. The new Church was dedicated on the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels in 1665.
In 1780 the Church was destroyed by Hurricane. The next Church, which followed very much the plan of the former edifice, was erected in 1789. Accommodating about 3,000 worshippers, this church was then the largest this side of the Atlantic, and with its substantial tower and peal of bells is much the same building one sees today for, although it was severely damaged again by hurricane in 1831, it was not demolished. Upon the separation of the parishes of Saint Michael and Saint George, Saint Michael’s continued to be the Parish Church of the City of Bridgetown.
Up to this time the Church in Barbados had been under the distant jurisdiction of the Bishops of London. In 1825, under Royal Letters Patent of 1824 of King George IV, the first Bishoprics were established in the West Indies, (Barbados and Jamaica.) The first Bishop of Barbados was the famous Bishop William Hart Coleridge. The Parish Church of Saint Michael now became the Cathedral of the new Diocese. Later still, in 1888, the first Cathedral Chapter was created and stalls provided for the Dean and Six Canons.
The Cathedral is built of coral stone in a simple classical style but features also the English tre-foil in the clerestory windows. The Church is provided with galleries on three sides and in the western gallery is the organ, one of the best in the West Indies. The Chapter Room is placed over the south porch and the Choir and Clergy Vestries over the north porch.
The addition of a Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament (Lady Chapel) was made in the year 1938. The Chapel has some fine stained glass windows. The circular window featuring the Patron Saint of the Parish, Saint Michael, was installed about 1840 during the episcopate of Bishop Coleridge. Damaged during the hurricane of September 1898, the window was sent to London for repair in 1899; but on its return in April 1900 it was found to be cracked through the centre. Sent back to London, it was again found damaged when it returned to Barbados in June 1901 and had to be sent to London a third time for repair. When it came back in April 1902, it was, however, found to be intact, and no time was lost in having it re-installed. The other stained glass windows were presented to the Cathedral in 1890 by James Challenor Lynch in memory of his parents, the Hon. James Alsop Lynch, MLC and Rowena, his wife. The windows were made by W. James & Co. of London. The roof of the Chapel is designed in the shape of an upturned boat and is covered with wallaba shingles.
The Reredos, of Devonshire marble and Beer stone, was executed in England from the design of Mr. F. Kitchen, an architect of Winchester, England, and was erected under the supervision of Mr. C.Y. Simpson, a local engineer. Originally it stood against the wall of the Chancel; but when the Chancel was extended in 1938 to create a Lady Chapel, Messrs. Law and Connell, who had prepared the plans for the Chapel, designed concrete beams to support the Reredos. This was a gift to the Cathedral in 1892 in memory of F.A. Clairmonte, Esq. of the Bridgetown firm of Clairmonte and Company.
On the occasion of Queen Victoria ’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, it was proposed to erect a Chancel Screen in the Cathedral to commemorate the event. The Dean, the Very Rev’d Thomas Clarke, was however, about to retire, and it was decided that the screen should serve also to commemorate his long incumbency, which began in 1842, when he was appointed Rector. The order for the screen was placed with Messrs. Willis and Jones of London in January 1898. The screen was dedicated on December 22 that year.
A small marble font situated at the Western end of the Cathedral is dated 1680. This font was salvaged from the ruins of the old St. Michael’s Parish Church, destroyed in 1780. It is inscribed with a palindrome in Greek: “NIPSON ANOMEMA MEMONAN OPSIN” which has been translated:“Wash my sins; not only my face”.
In 1711 the St. Michael Vestry commissioned Colonel Christian Lilly, a military engineer who had earlier designed St. Ann’s Castle, to build a square tower at the west end of the church to accommodate a peal of bells. This peal of bells is no longer rung. The Churchwarden at that time, Mr. P. Lytcott, was directed to import a clock immediately “to chime the quarters and strike the hours, to be put up as soon as possible, it being of great use to the Town.” However, being informed that the old clock could be repaired, the vestry agreed for it to be sent to London, where if found to be beyond repair, it should be sold for whatever it would fetch, and a new clock obtained, as previously decided. A new clock for the church tower was shipped from London in January 1787.
A number of monumental tablets and works of sculpture are to be found erected on the walls of the Cathedral.