Think of the Caribbean and you may well conjure up idyllic scenes of islands in the sun. But then again, you might call to mind scenes of human suffering from the region's turbulent history: for this is truly a zone of contrasts.
Millions of Africans were shipped over in ghastly conditions, with millions more dying on the way. When they arrived they were forced to expend their blood while their masters grew rich.
Human cruelty apart, the region has also been vulnerable to cataclysmic natural disasters. An earthquake destroyed two thirds of Jamaica's Port Royal at the very time it was the headquarters of such seawolves as the Panama-sacking Captain Henry Morgan (and many were those who said that this was divine punishment being wrought upon the buccaneers). Volcanoes have added to the volatility.
And so have hurricanes. On September 7 2004 Hurricane Ivan lived up to its terrible name when it smashed into the small island of Grenada.
Hurricanes hardly ever happen in this southern part of the Caribbean (just north of Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago) but Ivan's furious onslaught of 125 mph winds lasted over eight hours. It damaged or destroyed 90 per cent of the housing stock and 95 per cent of the island's schools.
Hospitals and health centres were laid low, seats of government rendered uninhabitable and nine tenths of the lush rainforest area was uprooted. Famed as "Spice Island", Grenada was deprived of almost its entire nutmeg crop, its most celebrated export (which even features on the national flag) gone in one fell swoop.
Hurricane Emily then crashed in less than a year later and caused further serious damage. It will take at least a decade for the rainforest and the nutmeg trees to recover.
The most visible sign of Ivan's destruction is the almost 200-year-old Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. High on a hill in the capital St George's, it overlooks what is commonly adjudged the most beautiful harbour in the Caribbean. But it does so now a roofless, ravaged, boarded-up husk. Only its tower stands tall.
When I visited recently I found a scene of desolation. Plants grew from the holy water stoup; a headless statue of the Sacred Heart stood in a repository crammed with tattered church furniture. A Martin de Porres effigy stood caked in dust, an Anthony of Padua smashed to pieces.
So, too, was the cathedral's beautiful organ: the Blessed Sacrament chapel was pierced by a girder while beams and organ pipes lay scattered and stacked in various corners of the ruined house of God. There was a gaping crater in front of the high altar. On the white walls of the cathe dral were inscribed various messages of hope and thanksgiving from the clergy, including this from Grenada's first native-born bishop, the Dominican Vincent Darius: "Lord, we thank you for all the beautiful memories... Now we confide in your words: `Behold I shall make all things new.' " A key man in the cathedral restoration project estimated to cost E1.2 million — is Fr Bill O'Carroll of the St Patrick's Missionary Society (more familiarly known as the Kiltegan Fathers). Kerryman Fr O'Carroll, 75, spent 20 years in West Africa and several years in Britain before coming to Grenada in 1989.
He had recently returned from his 10th annual sponsored "100 Mile Walk for Mary" — now devoted to fundraising for the cathedral — across mountainous Grenada and its satellite islands of Carriacou and Petit Martinique.
"I'm still not recovered. It knocks the hell out of you," he said, smiling.
A seasoned fundraiser blessed with a graceful charm, Fr O'Carroll has sought help in the United States and Britain, both home to substantial Grenadian diasporas.
He loves his adoptive home. "The people are so alive here. with 800 cramming into our parish hall land temporary cathedral Mass centre] for Mass. Everyone sings with gusto and at the kiss of peace everybody greets everybody else," he said.
Elizabeth, a parishioner, told me: "Our faith, our community, have given us the strength to carry on." She proudly showed me the cathedral's new catechetical centre, "only up and miming the last few months". In truth, the Church plays a crucial role among the island's 100,000 inhabitants, of whom over 60 per cent are Catholic.
Right next door to the cathedral stands the hurricane-devastated school run by the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny. A shiny billboard announces that the £500,000-plus restoration project is being funded by the World Bank, the European Union and the government of Grenada. A further sign proclaims: "The Cluny Sisters are celebrating 200 years of presence and service. Let there be peace."
Other Tligious orders run some of the other leading schools on the island. Some years ago a group of students at the Presentation Brothers' school embarked on a project which sought to better understand another painful chapter in Grenada's recent history: political instability. The first coup d'etat, in 1979, lead to Grenada becoming a Left-leaning pawn in the Cold War, supported by Cuba, Nicaragua and the Soviet Union. The second, in 1983, in which the charismatic prime minister, Maurice Bishop, and half his cabinet were assassinated, resulted in an American invasion.
The student project unearthed much unaddressed resentment and inspired the setting up of Grenada's own truth and reconciliation commission, which sat between 2000 and 2002, presided over by Fr Mark Haynes, priest-in-charge at the cathedral.
More low-key is the work carried out by Mother Teresa of Calcutta's Missionaries of Charity. "We have been here 21 years and have three convents and one hospice," Sister Reina from India said.
The Carmelites and Sorrowful Mothers are also working in Grenada, and of the 20 priests present, five are Grenadian. The others come from Africa, Europe and North America.
Following Ivan, the Church's first response was to bring immediate relief to the islanders and to help them rebuild their homes. Some £700,000 was raised and distributed in the first three months after the storms.
Now the Diocese of St George's-in-Grenada is stniving not only to rebuild its cathedral but also to restore or rebuild the 34 out of 58 churches that were destroyed or severely damaged by the high winds.
I took the winding mountain road up into the ravaged Grand Etang national park and saw mere concrete bases where a church had once stood, or battered metal frames, bereft of timber or mortar.
Canon Bernard Scholes, from Hanwell parish, west London, fell in love with Grenada 10 years ago when he spent some months working in a parish, and goes back there regularly.
"Over the years," he recalled. "we here in Hanwell raised money to help the parish where I had worked, to renew all the benches in their church, eaten by woodworm, and to replace all the windows and frames, which were many, huge and broken. Then came Ivan. In my church the lovely benches we had provided so recently were destroyed. The roof had fallen in, wrecking the benches and the entire sanctuary, including tabernacle and altar. Other churches were in worse repair."
The total restoration cost for these churches will be well over a million dollars.
Canon Scholes adds that on a recent visit to Grenada, he was amazed by how much had been done and by the resilience of local people.
"Throughout my stay, people told stories about the hurricanes, but often with laughter as a way of coping with the disaster to their islands and their homes, and in many cases their livelihoods. Many of the stories were very sad indeed, but they would always finish with thanking God that there had been little loss of life."
So far, 10 churches have been restored to the extent that they can be used for worship.
And Grenada's new national stadium was built, with Chinese expertise and finance, in time to host some of the games in the Cricket World Cup earlier this year.
Nevertheless, the challenge of the ongoing reconstruction and consolidation remains enormous. Unemployment is high and there has been an increased exodus of young Grenadians. Per capita income is about a third of what it is on Barbados and Antigua.
Fr O'Carroll says that the national motto has never been more fitting: "Ever conscious of God, we aspire, build and advance as one people."
Cheques or money orders should be made payable to: "Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Restoration Fund" at the Republic Bank (Grenada), account number 92071957. Send to: Fr Bill O'Carroll, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, P 0 Box 224, St George's Grenada, West Indies.