Thursday, July 25, 2013

Interview: Dianne Canegata O'Reilly

At the turn of the twentieth century my house was owned by James C. Canegata, a shrewd  businessman that over the next decade would own over twenty properties in town, have over 200 tenants, own a dry goods store and even a soda factory. I was able to interview his great-granddaughter, Dianne Canegata O'Reilly, an enterprising woman in her own right as she is the owner of Shay's Boutique on the corner of Company and Church St. The fact that her great-grandfather's store was on the same street as her own is only one of the many ways that this family has left an interconnected legacy in the town of Christiansted.
Dianne Canegata O'Reilly, great granddaughter of one of the previous owners of my house, James C. Canegata
In the Virgin Islands perhaps the most famous of the clan is the beloved Dr. David C. Canegata whom the Christiansted ball park is named after. Dr. Canegata was the first Crucian to become a physician, was a member of all three branches of government and was an active humanitarian. Although coming from a rather privileged background of going to exclusive boarding schools in Antigua and being educated in Montreal, when he became a physician he is often described as taking a chicken for payment of medical services or not accepting payment at all.
Dr. David C. Canegata, son of one of the previous owners of my house

However, there is perhaps an even more famous Canegata that many Virgin Islanders know nothing about. Lionel C. Canegata, better known as Canada Lee, was the son of the first born son of James C. Canegata. It appears from baptismal documents and Census records that James C. Canegata had a son before David with a woman by the name of Fanny Levy. At 17 James C. Jr. left for NYC and became a part of the Harlem Renassaince movement with other notable Virgin Islanders like Hubert Harrison and Casper Holstein. His son, Lionel, born and raised in NYC became a famous jockey, boxer and then later an actor in both theater and film. Nicknamed Lee from childhood, it was during a fight as a boxer where the announcer mispronounced his name and Canegata became "Canada" and stuck.
Lionel C. Canegata aka Canada Lee, famous boxer and actor

And what is even more amazing about this process of researching the Canegatas is that we believe to have uncovered a younger brother to Dr. David C. Canegata, James Albert Canegata, apparently born in 1895 according to the St. John's church records! It was exciting and incredible that as we searched for better clarification on Canada Lee and who his mother was, we discovered indeed another brother. This was an unexpected surprise to the surviving Canegatas on St. Croix.

However, separate from the family discoveries, Dianne relayed a fascinating image of a strong and united family. One with beautiful traditions and a strong sense of place. She recounted memories of family gatherings at "The Hill" as her grandparents house was affectionately referred to, where all the Canegatas gathered for dinner on Sunday, Easter or Christmas.  Unfortunately the beautiful historic home she describes was destroyed in 1989 in Hurricane Hugo. What remains on this large property are the steps she remembers using to enter her grandparents home.

Steps to Dr. David C. Canegata's home on Fisher St. Christiansted, the remains of Hurricane Hugo in 1989
View of Canegata property on the corner of Church St. and Fisher St.

One of the other reflections she shared that stood out to me was a comment about what it felt like to recognize a particular brick on a street that you have canvassed your entire life. Having walked these streets as a child and now as an adult, she said it gives her a tremendous comfort and sense of self to be able to do that. It was a small but profound description of a true sense of place and belonging. It is that same sense of place and ownership that I hope my documentary can inspire.

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