"I am someone who merely tried to make a small difference in the world."
FR. GERARD PANTIN
Fr. Gerry, as he was best known, was born into a devoutly religious middle class family. He was the eldest of 10 children and experienced the trauma of the premature death of his father while still at the tender age of eleven. He attended Belmont Intermediate School and won a scholarship to St. Mary’s College where his scholastic achievement flowered at the secondary level, culminating in his winning an Island Scholarship in the Science Group in 1947. That year, he was also awarded the Jerningham Gold Medal for achieving the highest mark in the Cambridge Higher School Certificate Examination. Those who knew him remember a worldly and exuberant boy, a boy scout and an able sportsman performing with distinction in cricket and football. Everyone believed that he was destined for the medical profession. However he opted to answer the call of God and joined the Holy Ghost Fathers.
After completing his Novitiate in Montreal he pursued his studies in University College, Dublin, Ireland where he obtained his B.Sc. (honours) in Chemistry, Biochemistry and Botany, a diploma in Education, a diploma in Philosophy and a diploma in the history of European Painting. He then spent a year at the Fribourg University in Switzerland where he became fluent in French and qualified and obtained his License in Theology. After his ordination in 1958 he was assigned to his Alma Mater, St. Mary’s College where he taught the Science subjects, served as Dean of the senior forms and was Games Master for many years. For the next 11 years he spent his energies teaching, organising games, working with the Christian Family Movement, founding St. Anthony’s College – the first comprehensive Private School in Trinidad, establishing CARITAS, interacting with young couples and doing a great deal of marriage counselling.
The year 1970 was perhaps the most defining period in his life. During the Black Power riots in Trinidad he saw thousands of young people from the lower socio-economic group marching in the streets, calling for justice and equality. His Congregation was supposed to have an option for the poor and the disadvantaged and he recognised that most of his energy was focused on the upper and middle classes of the society. He often recalled that when he saw the thousands of marchers - many from the ghetto areas - he could not put a name to one of them even though they lived three blocks away from where he taught.
In a moment of what he often called “Divine Madness” he got permission to leave his lucrative teaching job and went into the poverty areas to offer his services. For four months he was assisted by Wes Hall, the celebrated West Indian Cricketer, and later for eight years by twelve Soldiers and Sailors from the Trinidad Defence Force who were assigned to work with him as Community Workers.
As expected their entry into these poverty stricken communities was not an easy one and there was a great deal of suspicion especially from the leaders of the Black Power Movement as to who sent them there – the Government, the Church, the CIA?
It took months for the people to trust them but eventually their sincerity, perseverance and courage paid off and small projects began to develop. Perhaps it was the vision of Fr. Gerry and his philosophy of working with communities which made the break through – attentive listening, respectful intervention and lack of cultural arrogance – these values he demonstrated, and he lived out and encouraged all who then and today call themselves SERVOL (Service Volunteered for All) to live out in their work and lives – from these beginnings the organisation was born on September 8, 1970.
In 1973 he founded the Trinidad and Tobago Development Foundation (Fund Aid) which guaranteed loans for entrepreneurs and community projects.
Twelve years later, in 1982, he picked up the extraordinary story of himself in his introduction to the “Silent Prophet” and the journey of the organisation over those years.
Forty-four (44) years later the organisation has continued to grow and develop, with a staff of over 600 persons and over 200 Centres with Programmes for Parents, Day Care and Early Childhood Centres, Skill Training, Hi Tech Centres and Advance Skills for Adolescents, a holistic Adolescent Development Programme and schools for Differently abled children and young people. Each Centre has a Board of Education made up of persons from the communities who manage the Centres with the staff and continue to serve the poor and disadvantaged of the society.
The SERVOL Model has been adopted by many countries in the Caribbean, Africa and Europe.
The citation on his Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of the West Indies sums it all up:
“Blessed with a fine intellect and a personality
in which there is a remarkable coincidence of
humility, courage, patience and devotion to
duty, he has charted a new course in rough
and dangerous waters with a power and
conviction which command us to follow.
In recognition of his contribution to our
Caribbean community we are reminded
of Bacon’s paradox:
‘If a man begin with certainties he shall end
in doubt but if he will be content to begin with
doubts he shall end in certainties."
Fr. Pantin has received many awards both locally and internationally, among them the Trinity Cross – the Highest Award in Trinidad & Tobago from the Government and the Right Livelihood Award (the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize) in Sweden.
His life and example will continue to be an inspiration and encouragement to all of us who call ourselves SERVOL – his legacy we will keep alive by our commitment to the values of service and dedication to those who are most marginalized in our societies. We will continue to follow.
Sr. Ruth Montrichard
Chairman – SERVOL