Eulogy of Evelyn Messer James (March 29, 1931 – June 16, 2022)
Prepared by: Wayne A.G. James
In my decades-long journey of family research, I have become acutely aware of the significance of each branch and each leaf on a family tree. And it was with that keen insight that I embarked upon the delightful task of creating a written record of the “leaf” that is Evelyn Messer James.
For many years, on account of a life lived abroad that rarely brought me home to St. Croix for extend-enough periods to sit with my mother and write her history, I harbored a premature sense of regret that I would one day lose the opportunity. But God and our ancestors had other plans….
The opportunity to sit with my dear mother, hour after hour, day after day—exactly the time needed to record a life as long and rich as Mommy’s—came in a most uncharacteristic, unpredictable, unprecedented way: I was ordered by the District Court of the Virgin Islands of the United States to 24/7 home confinement as a result of my being declared a “flight risk” during the legal proceedings pertaining to “financial inconsistencies” that occurred during my term as senator.
On September 4, 2017, while confined to the home of my sister Grete (“Patsy”), Mommy and my brother Kevin came to pay us a visit. And while visiting, word of the fast-approaching Hurricane Irma came across the airwaves. Kevin left Patsy’s house in order to secure La Grange House. But Mommy stayed behind with me and Patsy. And it is that fateful decision that enabled the long-overdue “Conversations with Evelyn Messer James,” a 35-page, single-spaced document detailing Mommy’s extraordinary life—from her birth atop a Crucian four-poster mahogany bedstead at “Schoolhouse” in Annaly, to her Saks Fifth Avenue wedding gown, to her intrepid sojourn to the nation’s capital to obtain her first university degree then to New York to earn her second, to her insightful foray into forestry.
With her characteristic tenacity, Mommy would each morning make her way to the room I was occupying, lie upon the bed, and begin recounting her life. “My memory isn’t like it once was,” she would say whenever she was not 100% sure of her recall, “but this is how it happened….”
Thus, after approximately two weeks of hours-long sessions each day, Mommy simply stated, “You have everything now. I want the generations to come to know me. Maybe you can one day write a book about my life. Or maybe an official document—just something so that they will know me after I am long gone.”
It is those conversations, along with my God-given gift of recall, that serve as the basis for this eulogy of Evelyn Marie Messer James.
Many a boy—perhaps until he starts looking at movies and at magazines—believes that his mother is the most beautiful woman in the world. Then, typically in his teenage years, he starts to think otherwise. I, however, never stopped believing that my mother, Evelyn Marie Messer James, was the world’s most beautiful woman.
I recall one night in the summer of 1970, while marveling at my mother’s beauty, I asked, “Mommy, who is the world’s most beautiful lady?” And Mommy replied, “There is no such thing. There are many forms of beauty, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But it is often said that Elizabeth Taylor is the world’s most beautiful woman.”
As Life would have it, that very night, within minutes of our conversation, the movie, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” starring Elizabeth Taylor, came on the television. Wanting to see with my own two eyes who was the woman who could upstage my mother, I looked at the movie. And as the great actress made her appearance, I exclaimed, “But Mommy, you are prettier than Elizabeth Taylor!” But in Mommy’s unassuming way, she modestly replied, “Wait ‘til you see her in Cleopatra.”
Later in life, I would have to concede that the great Naomi Campbell came a close second. But Mommy had better cheekbones.
Evelyn Messer James was Crucian to the bone. She is a leaf on a mighty baobab that came across the Atlantic in the hold of a slaving vessel as a mere seed. That seed took root on St. Croix in the early decades of the 1700s, and it has thrived ever since.
Mommy is one of but a handful of remaining Crucian who can claim—with documentation—that they descend on both sides from people, all of whom were born on St. Croix once transplanted from Africa. Her maternal great-great-great-grandmother is Hope, born in 1776 at Estate Biddlestone (today called Estate Punch), which was at the time the “sister plantation” to Annaly. Hope is the mother of Grace Andrew, born at Annaly in 1806; Grace is the mother of Lucia Stevens, born in Annaly in 1840; Lucia is the mother of Julia Samuel, born in Annaly in 1864; Julia is the mother of Catherine Batiste, born in Annaly in 1892; and Catherine is the mother of Evelyn, born in Annaly in 1931. On her father’s side, she descends from a long line of Princes. Anthony Prince, born free on St. Croix in 1759 (the year of the first St. Croix slave insurrection), owned property on Hospital Street in the “Free Gut” section of Frederiksted, made his living as a cooper, and lived until the age of 96, dying in 1856. He, it is said in the family’s oral history, was the son of an African prince who was enslaved and brought to St. Croix in the earliest years of the Danish era (1733 -1917), hence the surname Prince. Anthony Prince (1759 -1856) is the father of Anthony Prince, born in 1777 at Estate Campo Rico. Like his father, his profession was that of cooper. His son, Richard “Dick Richard” Prince, was born on St. Croix in 1810, his mother being Sablona Williams. And like his forefathers, he, too, was a cooper. In 1865, “Dick Richard” Prince fathered Andrina Prince, born at Estate Two Friends. And Andrina is the mother of Carl Augustus Messer, the father of Evelyn Messer James, born at “Schoolhouse” at Annaly in 1931.
For Mommy, Annaly, with its gentle hills, verdant pastures, and magnificent bay, was Arcadia, her Utopia, a Crucian Camelot. And throughout her life, whenever she spoke of Annaly, it was clear that in her mind, it was sacred ground. After all, several branches of her family come from Annaly.
Born to Carl Augustus Messer (1890 – 1971) and Catherine Batiste Messer (1892 -1967), Mommy was the 10th of 12 children—six boys, six girls—10 of whom lived into adulthood. From St. Croix’s storied “Northside” in general, and Annaly in particular, she derived her sense of being and of belonging. And for the duration of her Earthly existence, Annaly’s soil and air served to rejuvenate her. She always longed for Annaly; many a “navel string” of her family is buried there. And the Annaly plantation cemetery is filled with the remains of her ancestors. To Mommy, Annaly is hallowed ground.
The Childhood Years:
To hear Mommy speak of her childhood days in Annaly is to hear her speak of a paradise on Earth. Along with her siblings, namely Alvin (1911), honorifically called “Dada” by his siblings; Eileen (1913), addressed by her brothers and sisters as “Sister”; Lionel (1915) (“Leo”); Charles (1918) (“Charlie”); Gerald (1921); Leona (1925); Ann-Eliza (1927); Christian (1933); and Clarissa (1936); Merle Henry, who lived with the family as a sister for several years of her childhood; and the Messers’ dear, dear cousins, the offspring of Ann Richards Heyliger, daughter of Evelina Williams Richards, Mommy lived a life of bucolic beauty. But as Heaven had its Lucifer, Annaly had its “Capitan.”
“Run, Catherine! Run! Capitan comin’ afta we!” exclaimed Mommy when she realized that Capitan, the ferocious bull owned by the Lawaetz family, was in hot pursuit. [The Messer children called their mother by her first name.]
Noticing that Merle, Christian, and Evelyn were taking longer than normal to return from their daily journey to the Spring Garden gut, Catherine set out on foot to find the children, who had managed to quietly bypass Capitan as he was grazing by the roadside, seemingly oblivious of them. But knowing the bull’s wicked nature and vicious temperament, the children, upon rounding the bend in the road, took off running, knowing that the bull would likely abandon his grazing to pursue them.
To the horror of the children, upon rounding the bend, they encountered Catherine and young Clarissa on the road—heading towards Capitan!
Catherine Batiste Messer was a 6’ 4”, strapping lady. And for her, “running” was, at best, a brisk walk. But on that day, she hurriedly gathered up the hemline of her ankle-length frock and hastened towards the safety of “Schoolhouse,” the children run-walking by her side to ensure their collective safety.
It seemed like only seconds after they made it into the safety of their home that Capitan entered the yard, nostrils flaring, eyes glaring. Searching frantically for a victim but finding none, he redirected his wrath towards the water drums alongside the house, tossing them about like playthings in his fit of fury.
“When my father came home later that evening and we told him the story, he immediately grabbed his machete and marched up to Mr. Lawaetz’s house, telling him that if Capitan ever set foot in his yard again, he would be a dead bull. Carl Messer, well-known on the Northside as a stick-fighter in the West African tradition, was a fearless man. And he raised us to fear no man—only God The Almighty,” Mommy said, her admiration for her father almost palpable.
And it is to Mommy’s fearless nature that I attribute her remarkable honesty: In my 60 years on this Earth, I have never—not even once—heard my mother tell a lie (or, as she would say, an “untruth,” since in our family, the word “lie” is a “bad word”). She never had to tell a lie because she was never afraid of telling the truth. She was fearless.
Years later, in 1996 when Merle returned to St. Croix to attend Aunt Eileen’s funeral, Mommy and Merle were one afternoon sitting at La Grange, reminiscing about their childhood days at Annaly. And Merle, to whom Mommy was fearless and invincible, was shocked to learn that Mommy was terrified during her childhood years of the setting sun, that lurid orb in the sky.
“Whenever I would look towards the west and see the big, red sun in the sky, it somehow seemed to me to be a demon,” Mommy divulged. “I never admitted to anyone that I was afraid of the setting sun. But did you ever notice that I would always hastily abandon whatever we were doing to go inside the house around sunset? I wasn’t afraid of the dark. But I was always afraid of the setting sun.”
Much of Mommy’s bravery came from her physical prowess. From the earliest years of her schooldays, she and her siblings, along with their Heyliger cousins, would walk the four miles from Annaly to Jolly Hill to catch the bus to St. Patrick’s School. And on the days that they missed the bus, they would have to cut across La Grange to get to school, all on foot. So, by the time Evelyn was a teenager, she was “bull-strong.” She was a tall, strong girl—the girl who could beat the best of the boys in a fist fight, so much so that the nun’s at St. Patrick’s dubbed her “Joe Lewis.”
Her dear brother Gerald, 10 years her senior, trained as a boxer while a member of the CCC Camp. And he taught Mommy all he knew. Despite the age disparity, Mommy and Uncle Gerald were inseparable all their lives together on this Earth. “Evie,” he used to tell her, “avoid a fight if you can. But if you know for a fact that it will end in a fight, hit first—and second. And hopefully, you won’t have to do anymore hitting after that.”
“Come, Evelyn! Hurry! Ohanio fightin’ Christian!’ shouted our cousin Gloria Harris, daughter of Irene Stewart Harris, as she hurriedly approached where Mommy was sitting, studying for her geography test.
“I was sitting on the wall outside St. Patrick’s Church, facing Arthur Abel’s house, when Gloria came running,” Mommy said. “ I grabbed up my book and ran along with Gloria to just outside St. Gerard’s Hall, where the fight was taking place.
“I, holding the big geography book vertically in both hands, brought it with all my force down the length of Ohanio’s face. That’s when he let loose of Christian and grabbed me, trying to lift me off my feet. But I knew that trick, so I braced one leg behind the other so that he could only, at best, get ahold of one leg, then I bent down and lifted him off his feet. And by the time I got through with him, he had two black eyes, a bloody lip, his shirt was in shreds, and I had bitten his St. Patrick’s school tie in two. Mother Alban parted the fight. And Mother Constantina administered the punishment: seven lashes each.
“I soon forgot the lashes, but the tongue-lashing remained with me for the rest of my life. Mother Constantina said, ‘Evelyn, you box like Joe Lewis and you grapple like a Roman gladiator. But you are a beautiful girl. And if you keep fighting, one day your beautiful skin will be indelibly marked.’
“That was my last fight. I never fought again. I took Mother Constantina’s advice to heart. But that day, I had to give Ohanio what he deserved. He was the bully of the school, beating up all the boys. He didn’t come to me in peace. So, I sent him away in pieces. He never returned to St. Patrick’s after that day. They sent him away to New York.”
In 1946, in celebration of William Henry Hastie’s appointment as the first black governor of the United States Virgin Islands, there was a parade in the town of Frederiksted:
“At the end of the school day on a Friday, Mother Ermine told me to report back to school the following day, on Saturday morning. In those days, you didn’t ask a nun ‘why?’ So, I did as instructed,” Mommy said. “When I arrived at school, the nuns ushered me into one of the classrooms, where they dressed me in a beautiful gown made of paper. And the next thing I know, I was on a float in the parade, representing St. Patrick’s School. A photo was taken of me in that paper gown on that float. And when C.R.T. Brow saw the photo, he exclaimed, ‘Now that’s a black beauty!’ The Northside Puerto Ricans used to call me ‘Linda’ when I was a girl.”
Pretty dresses were very much a part of the Messer household. The aptitude for sewing was, apparently, inherited from the paternal line: Carl Messer wielded a bodkin as a saddler and a sewing-needle as the sugar-sack maker at the Bethlehem Sugar Factory. But the art of dressmaking was introduced to the Messer girls when Aunt Leona apprenticed with a Ms. Latimer of the town of Frederiksted. Aunt Leona quickly mastered the trade and passed it on, as fast as she was learning it, to Aunt Ann-Eliza and Mommy, then, finally, to Aunt Clarissa when she came of age.
Mommy could sew anything—from an apron to an haute couture gown to liturgical vestments. And it is with her great skill that she made the wedding gowns for Erna’s 1968 wedding, 1974 double wedding of Patsy and Laurel, and Jennifer’s 1975 wedding. And when Charlene Brow, daughter of Miriam Williams Brow and C.R.T. Brow, was getting married, she came to Mommy and said, “Mrs. James, you made my First Communion and Confirmation dresses. And those dresses were absolutely beautiful. So, I would be honored if you would make my wedding gown.”
Mommy, who had long given up the needle of her younger years for the pen of her adult years, brushed off her Singer sewing machine and gladly made Charlene an exquisite wedding gown. That would be the last time Mommy sewed for anyone outside her immediate family.
But the legacy of fashion did not end with her generation. I, as is well known, became a fashion designer immediately after graduating from Georgetown Law, my garments having been sold in some of the world’s finest stores and my collections lauded by the fashion industry’s foremost critics. And like my mother before me, who made liturgical vestments for the priests at St. Patrick’s, in 1989, in celebration of Georgetown University’s bi-centennial, I was commissioned to design the vestments for the Jesuits, a commission which led to a commission to design vestments for Pope John Paul II in 1990.
The Engagement and the Wedding:
The engagement was simple: Gustav put a plain gold band, created by Crucian jeweler Monroe Clendinen, on Mommy’s ring-finger and said, “Consider yourself married.”
Then the wedding plans started in earnest: “Sister sent me the wedding gown, a bouquet of silk flowers, and silk shoes from Saks Fifth Avenue. She enlisted Leona to purchase the veil. Sister also purchased my silver dinner service.
“The wedding took place at Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel at Estate Montpellier, officiated by Father Mark Knoll, Gustav’s friend. Ivan [James, younger brother of Gustav] was the best man. The wedding band, stylized with Roman numerals, was crafted by Monroe Clendinen. Marie Desau, Louis Brown’s mother and great-grandmother to Judge Patricia Steele, baked the wedding cake. We had a simple reception at Schoolhouse.”
On their wedding day, Daddy, Gustav A. James, Sr. (1919 – 1983) established his young family at 32A Hospital Street in the “Free Gut” section of Frederiksted, a stone’s through from Mommy’s Prince-Messer ancestral home at 32C Hospital Street.
When Daddy and Mommy got married, it was a match in the making for more than 200 years, for major branches of their respective family trees bore fruit at Annaly. Mommy descends from Hope, born at Estate Biddlestone (later called Estate Punch) in 1776. And Daddy descends from Thomas, born at Estate Biddlestone in 1776. By 1786, the two children had been transferred to Estate Annaly, each thereafter establishing his/her respective line: Hope and Andrew of Annaly producing Grace Andrew (b. 1806), Mommy’s great-great-grandmother; and Thomas and Azontha (born in Africa in 1785 and brought to St. Croix at the age of 13 in 1798) producing Christianah Thomas of Annaly, Daddy’s great-great-grandmother. And, as is to be expected, with the two families co-existing on the same plantation for almost 200 years before Daddy and Mommy united the families as one, the families had long criss-crossed, intermarried, and interrelated. In essence, then, Mommy and Daddy knew each other from long before they were born, let alone married.
“When I was at St. Patrick’s, I used to see Gustav each morning, walking up the street in front of St. Gerard’s Hall, heading towards the new convent to turn on the water for James La Grange. I had no idea then that he would one day be my husband,” Mommy would often recount.
The Young Family:
Mommy bore her children quickly—12 in 19 years. Forever connected to Annaly, her first three children—Magnolia, Erna, and Winfield—were delivered at “Schoolhouse,” under the careful eyes of her mother Catherine, who had herself given birth to 12.
When Joan and Jo-Ann—Mommy’s two babies born between Gustav, Jr., (“Jim”) and Jennifer—were born premature, dying within days of their births, Granny, in all her wisdom, consoled her daughter thus: “Evelyn, every day, we get from the Earth. But sometimes we have to give back to the Earth.”
Eirno Ritter, close relative of Isaac Gateword James (1893 – 1978), father of Gustav James, Sr., made the coffins for the infants, and Daddy buried them in the Prince-Messer plot in the Frederiksted Cemetery. Mommy always referred to Joan and Jo-Ann as her “two angels.” And Mommy’s paternal uncle, “Brother ‘Fonsa,” always maintained that baby Joan was the prettiest baby he had ever seen.
“When I lost the two children, the doctor told me that I could no longer be as active during pregnancy as I had always been, running up and down steps like in my girlhood and with the previous pregnancies. So, when I became pregnant with Jennifer, I was more cautious, and the rest of you came without incident,” Mommy recalled with a tone of immense gratitude in her voice.
The couple raised the 10 surviving children, educating them all at St. Patrick’s, St. Mary’s, and St. Joseph’s Catholic schools, thereafter sending them off to various universities around the country, some Catholic.
Mommy’s Close Friends:
Mommy was not a lady inclined towards many friendships. But the few she had were dear friends. Sylvie Matthews Henry, wife of John Henry and mother of Cordell, Rudyard, Omar, Blondell, Hillary, etc., and Clacie Robinson, mother of Alfonso Brewster, Mommy’s first godchild, were her dear, dear friends of her early adulthood.
During Mommy’s university years in Washington, DC, she forged friendships with people from around the world: James Meaner from Sierra Leone, Joyce Wong Henry from Guyana, and Kasim from the Middle East. They supported each other, shared their native dishes with each other, and would sometimes meet for social gatherings at our apartment on Mt. Pleasant Street in NW Washington, DC.
In adulthood, Mommy’s dear friend was Marilyn Martin, originally of the Dominican Republic, who not only coiffed Mommy, but also served as her confidante. And when Mommy started traveling to New York on the buying-trips for Carl-Michael’s, she and Valerie Stephenson of Jamaica became dear friends.
Introduction to Professional Life:
One of my earliest memories of Mommy is of her in the kitchen, making a huge pot of red peas soup. And as a special treat to me, she stuck two of the dumplings onto the outside of the pot, allowing them to toast to a biscuit-like consistency. I must have been less than two years old because by 1963, after years as a housewife and homemaker while Daddy owned and operated his dry good/varietys store that his father had established a generation earlier, Mommy embarked on her professional career, never looking back.
In order to ready herself for the professional world, Mommy enrolled in several business courses taught in the evenings by Miriam Brow, godmother of Mommy’s eldest son Winfield, at the Claude O. Markoe School. There, Mommy took typing (Daddy bought her a big, green typewriter so that she could practice at home), office skills, and bookkeeping. And when Mommy got her first professional job with the Department of Public Safety, her supervisors, who had been accustomed to having to conduct on-the-job training, were pleasantly surprised—and relieved.
“I would like to place some flowers on the grave of Miriam,” Mommy said during our September 2017 conversations. “She helped me a lot.”
“Miriam prepared me well—everything from how to type forms with carbon paper, to how to mange the books of a business.
Once flexing her wings in the professional arena, Mommy then became one of the founding members of the Frederiksted Chapter of BPW (Business and Professional Women’s Club). Within its membership, she found camaraderie with like-minded women who helped blaze the trail for Virgin Islands women in government, business, politics, and higher education.
But in many ways, Mommy’s introduction to business came at a much earlier age, when she would observe how her mother would wholesale “Schoolhouse” fresh produce to the produce retailers and marketplace vendors of Christiansted. And when, at the age of eight, Mommy went to live with her father’s younger sister, Eileen Messer (1906 – 1940), in whose honor Mommy’s eldest sister is named, Mommy became the “righthand girl” of “Big Aunt Eileen,” who had established what was in effect a “cook shop” outside her home in the La Grange village in order to provide lunch for the factory workers. Big Aunt Eileen would have Mommy run to town, during her lunch breaks from St. Patrick’s School, to purchase the necessary ingredients for the cook shop. And Mommy witnessed, first-hand, how to factor in costs in order to price products and services at a profit.
But it was when Mommy, from 1940-41, went to live in Christiansted with Councilman Andrew Pedro and his wife that Mommy whetted her appetite for business.
Mommy’s maternal great-grandmother was Lucia Stevens Pedro (1840 – 1878) of Annaly. So, when Andrew Pedro and his wife, who were childless, returned to St. Croix after some years of living in the States, he came to Annaly to ask Granny if she could let one of the children live with him and his wife at his home in Christiansted. My grandparents agreed. And at the age of 10, Mommy withdrew from St. Patrick’s and was enrolled in St. Mary’s, Arnold Mortimer Golden being one of her classmates.
“I had a wonderful time with the Pedros,” Mommy would say throughout the remainder of her life. “I was his little ‘Business Representative.’ He used to manage the properties of Crucians who were living in the States. So, I would collect the rents in cash, issue receipts for the collected cash, purchase corresponding postal money orders, and mail the money orders to the people in the States. I also used to accompany Mr. Pedro to the many political events he attended. And we would get into his car and drive to Cramer’s Park, which was being constructed in those years. I was like a little business executive. And I enjoyed having so many responsibilities. I felt grown.”
Mommy also spoke exceedingly affectionately about the two older girls who lived near the Pedro house, which was situated on the corner of Queen and King Cross Streets, the building that years later housed Brady’s Restaurant on the ground level.
“Those two girls, knowing that I was a Frederiksted girl, took me under their wings like two big sisters. They were very loving towards me. I will never forget their kindness,” Mommy said, her voice filled with nostalgia. “And every morning, religiously, a lady used to come to comb my hair for me. Mrs. Pedro used to pay the lady five cents each day. I had my own, private beautician at age 10! I don’t recall the lady’s name. She was very nice to me. I wish I had paid more attention to such things back then. Had I recalled her name, I would thank her today by laying a wreath on her grave. My days in Christiansted were wonderful days…. We should purchase the Pedro house and restore it to its former glory. It was a beautiful property. We should look into acquiring it. We have history in that house.”
Higher Education and Professional Life:
So, when Mommy transferred from the Department of Public Safety for a better position with the Department of Health, she started the job with a professionalism that got her immediately noticed by her supervisor, Theodore Thomas, and Health Commissioner Melvin H. Evans. And they encouraged and facilitated her interest in furthering her education, recommending that she apply for the prestigious Morris F. de Castro Scholarship, which she was awarded.
In 1968, Mommy and Daddy struck a deal: Mommy, mother of 10 children, would head off to the U.S. Mainland to further her education. Mommy would take the four youngest children—Jennifer, Kevin, Michael, and me with her to Washington, DC, where she would study at the Benjamin Franklin University (which later merged with George Washington University); and Daddy would remain on St. Croix with the three older children who had not yet left home to pursue their studies—Patsy, Laurel, and Gustav, Jr. Our first-cousin, Dennis Morris, Aunt Ann-Eliza’s son, also lived with Daddy during that time.
Of course, there was talk: that the plan would put a strain on the marriage; that Mommy should stay on St. Croix and look after all her children; that Mommy should just go to C.V.I. and make do with that.
But Daddy and Mommy knew what they were doing. And in the summer of 1971, Mommy, at age 40, obtained her first university degree. Then, at age 50 in 1981, she obtained her second degree, this one from Pace University in New York. Always seeking knowledge, Mommy later enrolled in the Master’s of Public Administration program at the University of the Virgin Islands. And in the early 2000s, when e-commerce was still in its infancy, Mommy established www.CarlMichaelGifts.com and enrolled in computer classes at UVI to learn how to build, update, and manage her website and her online venture.
“It was Brother ‘Fonsa who sparked my desire for education,” Mommy said. “When I was a schoolgirl, he would each year buy me a new bookbag and a straw hat. He was proud of my interest in learning. And he always encouraged me. We need to erect a tombstone on his gravesite. Brother ‘Fonsa was my uncle. But he was like a father to me.
“You can do everything you set your mind to,” Mommy would always say. “But you can’t do everything at once. I wanted a lot of children, and I wanted a lot of education. So, I got the children, then I went off to school. I have never regretted it. Gustav was a great support. Few men would have done what he did. If I didn’t have a husband and a houseful of children, I would have been a racecar driver. I never pursued that career, but I drove fast whenever I could. For my second car, I had to choose between a Mustang and a Pontiac Firebird. I chose the Firebird because it’s speedometer went up to 160.” Mommy was an extraordinary lady.
Mommy’s Entrepreneurial Years:
On November 11, 1983, Evelyn Messer James became a widow. She was 52 years old. Family friend, Dr. Gilbert Sprauve of the island of St. John promised the family that he would make himself available to accompany Mommy to public functions and to give fatherly counseling to me and my siblings. And for almost 40 years, Dr. Sprauve unwaveringly kept his promise. And when I became ensnared in my legal quagmire, Dr. Sprauve came to my assistance like a father.
In 1998, after 25 years of service to the Virgin Islands Government, Evelyn Messer James retired, her last position being that of Senior Health Planner for the Department of Health. But she didn’t just go off quietly into the sunset. Instead, she spread her wings even more: Dr. Sprauve accompanied her to Alaska, Central America,South America, and the Hawaiian Islands; she traveled to West Africa; Dr. Sprauve again accompanied her on a grand tour of Europe; and Mommy traveled to many of the Caribbean islands. (And, of course, during her early adult years, Mommy traveled extensively in Canada and to many of the States as a member of BPW).
In December of 2002, Evelyn Messer James traveled to Foumban, Cameroon, West Africa, to attend the royal wedding of her youngest daughter, Jennifer Claudia James, to His Royal Highness Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya (1937 – 2021), King of the Bamoun Nation of Camerron. King Njoya was the 19th monarch of the Bamoun kingdom, with its unbroken line of royal succession reaching back to the 1300s.
In many ways, perhaps in tribute to Daddy, who supported the family with the proceeds from the dry goods/variety store which he owned and operated from 1941 -1968, Mommy established Carl-Michael’s, a dry goods/variety store in her beloved town of Frederiksted, selling everything from children’s clothing to fabrics and notions to school uniforms to costume jewelry and household items. And as a salute to her late husband, Mommy used in her store some of the original showcases from Daddy’s store.
Just as Mommy had been the “right hand girl” for her Big Aunt Eileen and for Councilman Andrew Pedro, her third-eldest grandchild, Oceana James, became her “right hand girl” upon the opening of Carl-Michael’s in 1985.
Mommy delighted in the buying-trips to New York to select goods and fabrics for the store. She even revived decades-old business relationships with the Puerto Rico-based wholesaler, such as Alonzo Sobrino, with whom Daddy, and Grandfather James before him, had done business.
“For years, Mommy kept up correspondence with a nun in Haiti whom she first met years ago on St. Croix while the nun was on mission here,” Oceana said. “For years, Mommy would send money and products to help the school in Haiti where the nun worked. For a little while, around the time of the earthquake, they were not in communication. But they got back in touch with each other, and Mommy kept supporting the school.”
Mommy was always keenly aware of her need to give to her community. In the early 1950s, she lent her theatrical talents to the St. Patrick’s Church community theater productions, directed by Father Frank, one of the most notable being her capacity-crowd performances at St. Gerard’s Hall in Nuts and Bolts. Mommy was also a member of the Catholic Families Movement (CFM), spearheaded by Sister Mary Marthe Vanrompey, the organization’s mission being to encourage the self-sufficiency of Catholic families. Mommy contributed to the organization’s effort by teaching classes on sewing.
Mommy also participated in the political process, serving for many years as an elected member of the Board of Elections, and running for the Virgin Islands Legislature in 2000 and Delegate for the Fifth Constitutional Convention.
In the 1990s, Evelyn Messer James donated her expertise in grant-writing/-management by serving as Executive Director of Our Town Frederiksted, overseeing its “Scrape-and-Paint” program, the goal of which was to beautify and maintain the many historic structures of her beloved town.
Of all Mommy’s charitable causes, however, the one nearest and dearest to her heart was the initiative she and Daddy established in 1981: The Committee to Restore the Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel at Estate Montpellier. Together with the island’s “Northside” families and friends from the Catholic Eastern Caribbean islands, Mommy and Daddy began raising funds to restore the country chapel in which they were married. In the end, it was decided for security reasons that it would be best to reconfigure the chapel as an open-air place of worship.
But just as Mommy’s foundation in business came from her childhood experiences with Big Aunt Eileen and Councilman Andrew Pedro, her inclination for charitable endeavors took root when she was in her pre-teen years and would visit her paternal grandmother, Andrina Prince Messer (1865 -1941), assisting her in the final decade of her life.
To visit her grandmother Andrina and uncle Alfonso “Brother ‘Fonsa” Messer (1896-1973) at the family’s 32C Hospital Street home in “Free Gut” (the section of the town designated in the era of Danish slavery on St. Croix [1733 -1848] for the town’s free black population) was the historic equivalent of a “religious experience”: Mommy’s great-great-great-grandfather Anthony Prince (1759-1856) established the one-level stone structure, with its 3 ft.-thick walls, as the family’s residence. It is at that home, with its brick oven in the yard, that Andrina baked her town-famous black bread and taught the profession of baking to several of the town’s young people.
At Hospital Street, Mommy also learned about her Messer line–that it can be traced back on St. Croix all the way to 1758, when Johanne Messer was born to a German father and a black lady. Born free, Johanne went on to become Captain of the Frederiksted Town Watch. He died in 1843 and is buried in the St. Paul’s Anglican Cemetery in Frederiksted. Research on the Messer line continues, with efforts underway to uncover the names of the parents of Johanne.
At her grandmother’s house, Mommy heard about her two paternal uncles, Alexander, born in 1888, and Richard, born in 1893, who migrated to Cuba in the second decade of the 1900s to work in that great island’s sugarcane industry and to play music. And it was at that house that Mommy would sit and listen to “Brother ‘Fonsa” play his guitar in his unique, pluck-strum way, a method he passed on to his young cousin Jamesie Brewster. Mommy used to beg Brother ‘Fonsa to teach her how to play the guitar, but he always refused, telling her that the guitar strings would toughen the tips of her fingers in a manner unbecoming a lady. At that same house, Mommy would help her grandmother comb her hair, get dressed in her stocking, help her place her shawl onto her shoulders, then, together, they would stroll along the streets of “Free Gut,” saying “Howdy” to relatives and friends alike. Mommy learned “the old ways” from “the old people”: Need to move bruised blood? Drink bitter, unsweetened white root tea. Have a high fever? Place fresh soursop leaves under the sheet. Want to whiten your teeth? Brush them with coal pot ashes. She also learned the old wisdoms: “What ain’t meet yoh ain’t pass yoh”; “Don’t envy people for what they have because you don’t know how they come by it”; “Leave them to the foot of the cross.” Also at that house Mommy honed the cooking and baking skills she had already learned from her mother Catherine, thereby mastering kallaloo, maufe, souse, red pease soup,boiled fish and fungi, Crucian Vienna cake, and potato stuffing, for example.
And, of course, at that ancestral dwelling place, Mommy also learned of her ancestors: Isabella, born at Estate Two Friends in 1772, is the mother of Nelly Barry, born at Estate Two Friends in 1809; and Nelly is the mother of Ann-Eliza James, born at Estate Two Friends in 1833, and she then gives birth to Andrina Prince (Messer) in 1865 at Estate Two Friends.
Mommy’s mother, Catherine Batiste Messer, was the daughter of Francis Batiste, born at Annaly in 1862 and died when crushed in a cart accident at the age of 30 in 1892, a few months before Catherine was born. Francis’ mother, Maria James, born at Annaly in 1829, married Francis’ father, Ferdinand Batiste, a mason from Estate Punch, in 1863 at St. Patrick’s Church. And Maria James Batiste is the granddaughter of Angelic (James) of Annaly, born, according to Annaly, in 1749, and gave birth to 17 children, 16 of whom she outlived. When she died on July 26, 1849, one year after Emancipation, Annaly recorded her age at death at 100, but St. Patrick’s recorded her death age at 120 years old.
And Catherine’s mother, Julia Samuel, born at Annaly in 1864, is the daughter of Charles A. Samuel, born at Estate Mt. Stewart in 1839, becoming the overseer of the plantation. His mother, Maria David Samuel, was born at Mt. Stewart in 1813.
So, from an early age, Mommy was well aware of her deep roots on St. Croix—that she was a leaf on a magnificent baobab that made its way across the mighty Atlantic as a seed, germinating and taking root on St. Croix in the earliest years of the Danish era and perhaps even in the era of the French (1650-1695/1733).
The Retirement Years:
When Mommy closed Carl-Michael’s after 12 successful years in business, she immediately took up yet another project, for Mommy had a penchant for projects—whether a correspondence course on becoming an author, or dabbling as a travel referral agent as a member of Travelone International, or writing down traditional recipes with the intention of starting a Crucian Cooking Channel. But the project that took root immediately—literally and figuratively—and gave Mommy the most satisfaction was her brilliant idea to establish a palm grove at La Grange.
“We have the acreage,” she said with her characteristic confidence. “And La Grange has an abundance of water—just what the Royal Palm thrives on.”
At the western entrance of La Grange House, not far from the old, elegant, limestone pillars that punctuate the driveway like two exclamation marks, once stood a tall, slender Royal Palm. Roystonea borinquena, a vestige of the Danish era. Like a lone sentinel looking over the James family, the palm is believed to have been planted in the 1890s.
Beginning in the early 2000s, Mommy started, painstakingly each day, collecting the seedlings from around the base of the great palm. She would gently collect them, then transfer them to starter-pots atop a large table shaded by one of great mahogany trees that surround the house. There, on that table, as if tending to her many babies in a nursery, Mommy nurtured each plant.
She then hired a gardener to establish a palm grove on the southern end of the property, not far from the La Grange gut. And today, 20 years later, the grove is thriving, with hundreds of palms reaching for the heavens.
“I established the grove knowing that it would mature after I am gone,” Mommy said mater-of-factly. “Every generation of a family should endeavor to surpass the one that preceded it. It’s called progress. The family will benefit from my palm grove for generations to come.”
The Final Years:
In Mommy’s last years of active life, her son Kevin became her “right hand man,” running her errands, chauffeuring her to and fro. He died unexpectedly on May 8, 2019, one month shy of his 60th birthday. From St. Thomas, Erna managed Mommy’s finances, her healthcare, and her household staff. Patsy was her hands-on caretaker, accompanying her to her medical appointments. And Laurel did all Mommy’s shopping for groceries and household needs. Mommy wanted for nothing.
During my time with Mommy while we were both at Patsy’s house from September 2017 to January 2018, Mommy would each day come to the room I was occupying and just lie on the bed. I would marvel at her beauty. Even at her age, she still had the best cheekbones of all time….
During those long days together, Mommy often spoke of her profound admiration for her eldest siblings: Dada, Sister, Leo, and Charlie. They had served as good examples for their younger siblings.
Mommy also reminisced about her favorite Annaly pets: Shingee, the wolflike dog that sucked water like a pig rather than lapping it like a dog; Bones, Shingee’s fungi dog companion; the black donkey that Uncle Christian named “Organdy”; Blue Bell, the roan Thoroughbred broodmare that Grandfather used to breed with the island’s top stallions to produce offspring for sale to Puerto Rico; and Dandy, the gentle gelding that would allow Mommy to braid its tail whenever she pleased.
Mommy vividly recalled the day Dandy returned home to “Schoolhouse,” pulling the cart, but without Grandfather in the driver’s seat. Granny and Aunt Leona immediately got into the cart, allowing Dandy to lead them to Grandfather, who had fallen off the cart into the Montpellier gut, lying there unconscious. “Dandy was a great horse,” Mommy said. “I loved Dandy.”
And oftentimes, when I was almost certain that she was fast asleep, I would observe her gracefully and silently make the sign of the cross on her person, then seamlessly resume her sleeplike state.
One day, when we were talking, she recounted the details of my birth. Then she looked me straight in my eyes and said, “Be you.”
On September 17, 2017, in the fierce winds of Hurricane Maria, the age-old palm at the entrance of La Grange House fell. But it left behind a grove filled with hundreds of offspring, thanks to the vision of Evelyn Marie Messer James.
Mommy’s last full meal was a bowl of kallaloo prepared by Laurel. Shortly thereafter, her appetite declined—as if she wanted her last meal in her Earthly existence to be the age-old West African dish.
Shortly thereafter, Mommy began her decline…. I asked that the priest be called to administer The Last Sacrament, and Jennifer went immediately to St. Patrick’s to request the priest. My dear godsister, Jeanie Duval, notified the priest of Jennifer’s request, and he and Jennifer set off immediately for La Grange. Once there, the priest administered the last rites. And within a handful of hours, Mommy, like a whisper in a grove of mighty palms, departed….
May Evelyn Marie Messer James rest in Eternal Peace.