Fr Martin Royackers, a defiant Canadian Jesuit priest, was shot dead in his dilapidated coastal parish on 20 June 2001. Sixteen years later, the motive for his killing remains a mystery, though some believe what led to his death was his defence of the rights of the poor




Father Martin Royackers and friend, Jamaica (note the Craven A cigarette)


Jesuits are often regarded by other Catholics as not quite regular clergy. They belong to a religious order and take vows, but choose not to be cloistered in a monastery, and often take their itinerant ministry to the poorest of the poor. Fr Jim Webb, a Canadian Jesuit who operated out of the Jamaican capital of Kingston, was no exception. Shortly before he died in 2012, I called on him at St George’s Jesuit College, of which he was principal. A sense of ordinary goodness surrounded him – his Kingston office was practical rather than pious, with filing cabinets and bare wooden floors.  Only the pectoral cross round his neck betrayed his high rank as Jesuit regional superior for Jamaica; he wore sandals and a T-shirt.




Fr Webb told me how Catholic priests had been murdered in Jamaica in reprisal for their “meddlesome” politics. In 1993, Fr Ron Pieters, a Guyanese Jesuit, was discovered nailed to a post in Kingston’s Jonestown ghetto, symbolically thorned and crucified. The following year, Fr Vincent Power, a 62-year-old Irishman, was shot dead while at prayer in his church in Falmouth in northern Jamaica.




One murder in particular haunted Fr Webb. In 2001 a 41-year-old Canadian Jesuit friend of his, Fr Martin Royackers, had been gunned down one evening in his parish church of St. Theresa Thérèsa in Annotto Bay.  He was shot at close range in the chest as he went to open his door in the rectory.  The case remains unsolved. Not one strand of forensic evidence – fibres, fingerprints – has yet been found to implicate anyone.




A fortnight prior to Royacker’s murder, Fr Webb had received death threats which the Jamaican police took seriously. The threats had to do with his and Royackers’ attempts to re-distribute land to the rural poor. In Jamaica, where public life is often corrupted by politicians seeking “fish head” – as bribes are called –  the Jesuit-run St Mary Rural Development Project was something new and dangerous. For eight months Webb was assigned a police bodyguard; he wanted to carry on Royackers’ work in countryside co-operatives, as well as his liturgical innovations. Alone among Catholic priests in Jamaica, Royackers understood that the Church had to become more “West Indian” if it was to survive. Though his theological instincts were conservative, he incorporated Afro-Jamaican religious expression into the parish liturgies, including drums and call-and-response rhythms. “It’s the African element – the element of magic in all our religions”, Fr Webb explained.





Preliminary enquiries after his death established that Royackers had been killed shortly after 9.00 pm on the night of 20 June. Nobody, according to the police report, had heard the gunman’s shot, or at any rate nobody had come forward. A Jesuit deacon had risen early to find Royackers’ supper uneaten and the refectory lights still on. The priest was lying face down on a blood-puddled floor, his body plugged with a single bullet. Powder burns at the entry indicated that the killer had been less than five feet away. “I may not be comfortable in Jamaica”, Royackers had written in a letter home, “but, like the morning’s first drag on a cigarette, the noise and heat and insect bites remind me that I am alive.”


The priest’s murder took me to Annotto Bay, a dank coastal outpost 30 miles north of Kingston. It was in this broken and marginalized place that Fr Royackers had served for six years as parish priest, and where he met his death. Mosquito-infested and poor, the town had warped jetties and boards upended on marshland. I rang the bell to the presbytery and the door was opened by Fr Webb, who had driven there from Kingston the night before. His pale face and slightly downcast manner spoke of a continued unappeased grief. “The first impression Martin made on people was often not a good one”, he admitted. “He chain-smoked, he was sort of slovenly, and he never said anything to please anyone.” During his 16 years as a Jesuit in Canada, Fr Webb told me, Royackers had refused to bend to authority, and questioned the Jesuit insistence on obedience as a virtue.