By Hon. Asot A. Michael M.P.
My family and I mourn the passing of our mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister and Aunt.
She has left a large hole in her hearts – one that can never be filled. She was our guide, our mentor, our seer. It was to her we turned in time of trial, and to her we looked at times of doubt.
She was always there. No time was inconvenient. No concern was too trivial. No problem too great. Hers was the hand that wiped away our tears. Hers was the voice that stilled our fears. Hers was the constant presence throughout the years.
In the firmament that lit our world, her precious light has been extinguished, and it hurts that it is so. The pain of loss we each now feel will not easily dissipate, nor will the grief that grips our every thought. It is not easy to console ourselves. For how can any soul, which has benefitted from such great love, such immense selflessness, such enormous generosity, be consoled.
The loss is huge. It tears at our very being, and the temptation is to rage against the coming of her night, and the dark pall that engulfs us all. But we know we must look to her Christian life, to her fervent faith in the goodness of God and her belief in the purpose of His plan, to understand our deep loss.
Her time in mortal coil has ended. Her trials are over. Her job is done. God, the Father, has summoned her home, to his side. And, we must rejoice that she is at peace, and in happiness, and that no hurt or evil will befall her. This must be our comfort amid our grief; it must be our solace in our sorrow; it must be our joy for her. For she is where she deserves to be… in the bosom of the Lord.
My friends our family is blessed that we do not mourn alone.
In this Church are gathered a host of witnesses to the lives that Josette Michael touched; to the multitude of persons who called her friend; to the numbers who held her in high regard.
Our family knows that you, too, grieve at her passing and that you join us in mourning her.
Together, we mourn the passing of Her Excellency Josette Michael, a friend of everyone, an enemy of no one; a philanthropist, business owner and long serving ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda. She was 81.
Today we reflect with pride on the life and times of a woman of quintessential faith, whose firmly held belief in a living God, grounded her every concern and interaction with all. She believed that all should be free to be themselves; to be happy, healthy. All should have access to education so that each of us can achieve our full potential as Christians living side by side in a competitive but Godly world.
At the tender age of 7, Josette left her home in Guadeloupe to attend the St. Ursuline Convent, one of two major boarding schools for girls in Barbados. Children from all over the Caribbean attended that school. Her time there started a journey of independence of thought and exposed her to many cultures and different languages. She went to the convent unable to speak English, only French, and the nuns separated her from her sisters, forcing her to learn English to interact with children from various cultures. She learned to speak English fluently and also learnt Spanish.
Being away from her parents and her paternal home for ten years at a Roman Catholic school served her well.
She shared the St. Ursuline Convent journey with her dear cousin and eventual sister-in-law Marie-Therese Shoul and best friend Belen Mini from Venezuela, who kept in touch with her until death.
Perhaps it was this early experience in being a free thinker and fending for herself that grounded her as a woman of God who was morally compelled to support and identify with many charitable causes and charities themselves. Often giving of herself, her time and putting her money where her heart was.
She gave to all, irrespective of their walk of life. She always had time for and was ready and willing to assist those less fortunate in life than her, whether it was meal, a garment, access to medical treatment or educational opportunity. She helped in whatever way she could, and she did it without publicity. Her generosity simply knew no bounds.
Josette married Patrick Asot Michael of Antigua in April 1962.
She was an integral part of her husband’s business on High Street – Patrick A. Michael
Antigua’s Premier Shopping Center, which opened in 1969. In her heyday, this store was the most successful in St. John’s.
It was known for men’s and women’s clothing, French perfumes, shoes, housewares, Roamer Watches of Switzerland, Lladro, Lalique and Waterford crystals and Cannon linens. When the famous Forsyth menswear manufacturer in the Caribbean took the region by storm in the 1970s, they chose Patrick Michael’s store to be the distributor in Antigua.
When it came to Christmastime, and buying gifts for family and loved ones, her store for most was simply the first stop if not the only one. It became an irresistible draw for customers and onlookers during the Christmas shopping experience. The lights, decorations and musical sound of Christmas were first to reflect the festive and Christian celebration in St. John’s Antigua.
Whilst Josette excelled admirably with the growth and development of her customer focused retail business, Patrick devoted significant sums of the profits into the Antigua Labour Party to which he was unswervingly committed.
Josette supported him in every step as a devoted wife, but she too identified with the causes of the then ALP. In her Christian conscience she felt that the ALP offered all Antiguans and Barbudans the opportunity for a better quality of life through the creation of jobs and the provision of educational opportunities. Things that we now take for granted but which were simply beyond the reach of the average Antiguan and Barbudan in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Many may believe that we are drawn to the glamor and thrust of the political world. It is not glamor and thrust of politics that drives and commits us; it is Josette’s Christian beliefs and principles for which she lived and died. She instilled in us that we are servants of Our Lord, and we must use the blessings that he has given in service for our fellow human beings.
That she stood by and supported the political spending preferences of her husband and son is a mark of her truly outstanding character as an empathetic, understanding Christian woman committed to living her life in service for others.
Her marriage to Patrick brought her much joy. But it was not without issue. When she fell victim to the unfortunate twists and turns that marriage sometimes has to offer, she held fast to her vows and remained determined to see the union through, for richer or poorer times; for the better or worse; in sickness or in health; in good times or bad times, “till death do us part”.
When the business went under, Courts came to Antigua in the 1980s, and rented the property for two years while the company built its own store.
Then Sealey Factory rented the building for eighteen months. It was the first Sealey showroom in Antigua. They signed an agreement to purchase the property for 5.4 million EC dollars. Josette tore up the agreement and told the Chairman of Sealey Factory from Jamaica and I quote, “I have a son. I will never sell that building. You can rent it but you cannot buy it.”
Josette took the time to rethink, renew and rebuild.
After Sealey moved out, came the era of Shoe Palace Bally of Switzerland, which opened in 1989 and operated successfully until Josette’s retirement.
The practice of devoting funds, generated from her leadership and management of the family business to the Antigua Labour Party, did not end with her husband’s passing in 1991. Indeed, it was adopted and carried on by me, with her blessing and is alive and well today.
In sacrifice and service, she found true meaning in the ebb and flow of life, and she contributed decisively to her family, her community, her generation and her country.
A family woman to the bone, she honored and cared for her parents with unconditional love and unswerving commitment. She made it her duty to be the one of their five children to accompany Winnie and Jean Sarkis to Mayo Clinic twice a year for their medical check ups.
When her father fell and sustained a broken hip, he had to be airlifted to Rochester, Minnesota for surgery. When he was asked who did he want to accompany him, he replied “Zezette”, as she was fondly referred to in the family circle. She left her husband, children and business to be with her Mom at her father’s bedside after surgery in the ICU for twelve and a half weeks in 1984.
She loved her siblings dearly but shared a special bond with her eldest sister Hugette Venutolo and baby brother Tony Sarkis. Shirley Sarkis was Josette’s best friend before they she got married to her brother Tony and they remained best friends for life.
She also loved and respected all her husband’s sisters – the late Gisele Michael, Lolita Aflak, Janet Boustany and Marie-Therese Shoul.
She never ran for office; but in her own right, Her Excellency Josette Michael was a politician too, blessed with a heart for service and the astuteness of a mind created for strategic thinking.
Her service to country as Ambassador for many years was no sinecure. She was well suited for the responsibility, and she served with distinction, purposefully, quietly and without fanfare.
One of her greatest joys was to invite people to the Dry Hill Great House to enjoy her special meals with a French touch prepared at highest standards of culinary excellence.
She loved it so much that she brought her expertise to a downtown restaurant called Josette’s that accompanied the Patrick A. Michael Antigua’s Premier Shopping Center.
There, she entertained the late Dr. Charley Locker, the manager of the Bank of Nova Scotia, Victor Enerson, the late Time H. Kendall, QC, the late Rowan Henry, QC, Mr. Clarence Lord, the late Leonard Tim Hector, Hugh Marshall Sr., and the late Sir Lester Bird.
These are just a few of Antigua’s creative and brightest minds, legal luminaries, and politicians who would frequent her restaurant and back office after working hours.
She received people from all walks of life into her home to eat and drink and be happy.
Her hospitality was unsurpassed.
She entertained many an Antiguan family and high-profile visitors to the island at her Dry Hill residence. She walked and dined with persons of high authority, but she never lost the common touch.
Politicians, businessmen, professionals, academics and ordinary, everyday people, seeking advice on matters of government – all had a seat at the table for lunch on Sundays.
I can recall persons like Aziz Hadeed and Sir Ramez Hadeed, Wills Martin, Allen Stanford, Dr. Joseph John, Elias and Salem Hadeed, Dr. Errol Cort, Tony Astaphan, John Fuller and Robin Yearwood.
There was hardly ever any space for us, her children, to sit on our own mother’s table for a Sunday lunch.
I remember the visits of her special guests like – Sir Vivian Richards, Bob Washington, Johnny Cochrane, Louis Farrakhan, Jessie Jackson; former Prime Minsters – Dr. Denzil Douglas of St. Kitts/Nevis, Dr. Keith Mitchell of Grenada, David Thompson (deceased) of Barbados, Rosie Douglas (deceased) of Dominica; current Prime Ministers – Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica and Dr. Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
As an ambassador for Antigua and Barbuda, she used her international contacts effectively for the national good.
After the ravages of Hurricane Luis in 1995, as a friend of Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, she convinced the Board of Governors of the Mayo Foundation to make a major contribution of hospital supplies and medication.
She organized by telephone, assistance from the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association from the President, Ms. Michelle Paige, two thousand miles away to send over 40 containers of generators, tarpaulin, lumber, water, and food supplies.
And she encouraged her brother, Tony, to charter six flights to Antigua from Guadeloupe with food water and relief supplies.
These planes were the first to land at V.C. Bird International Airport after the hurricane.
She acted in these circumstances, not for recognition, or praise, but because to her it was the right thing to do. She was fortunate to have these contacts and as she saw it as her obligation to put them in the service of her Nation and people.
Decades earlier, when Antigua and Barbuda attained Associated Statehood in 1967, Josette gave up her house for the inauguration ball of the new government.
The historic event was hosted by Princess Margaret and Sir Vere Cornwall Bird in the presence of Prime Minister Lester Pearson of Canada, Prime Minister Errol Barrow of Barbados and President Forbes Burnham of Guyana. The cost of the celebration was shared equally by Josette’s father-in-law and her uncles-in-law Mitchell Michael and Maurice Michael.
She enjoyed a special relationship with the late Sir Lester Bird, former Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda. They were best friends and she was a true confidante.
He had the greatest respect for what he would often describe as her astute political brain and people skills. In crucial matters of national development, investment facilitation and government operations, she had his ear.
Her wise, honest counsel facilitated appointments of attorneys general, commissioners of police, knights, ambassadors and other senior servants of the State.
On her 60th birthday, Sir Lester reflected on their gift of friendship:
Loyal souls we were, and are, to the surprise of many –
Bewildered, as they stand afar
Bemused to see how deep our caring
Transcending politics & hypocrisy and
deleterious games so pregnant in this narrow world.
We have travelled far, we have travelled wide;
No gulf develops, no anger flares
For deep within our minds
The purity of our love for each other reigns.
Let not age dim our wits, or change our course For ours is a Bond which has no end.
She was respected across the political divide and always operated with deep love and respect for the land of her mother’s birth that she, a citizen of France, chose to make her home.
She wanted nothing more than to see Antigua flower and prosper on the world stage as a small island state of happy, healthy, peaceful, resilient people.
Josette anchored her family on the foundation of love, devotion and service, and she made her life a mission to care, to help… to guide, to nurture… to enlighten, to inspire.
She valued education and was very proud of the achievements of her children and grandchildren.
In her last years, she paid great attention to and shared many special moments with her grandchildren and great-grandchild, named after her husband, Patrick Michael.
She began home gardening and maintained the magnificently landscaped grounds of the Dry Hill Estate and the newly renovated Great House with pride.
More than any other female member of the larger Michael family, she left her footprint on this island and enhanced the legacy of the Michael family.
The thousands of visitors from near and far who visited her household will never forget the excellence in hospitality that became the hallmark of engagements at the Dry Hill Estate at the entrance to the famous and historic Fort James.
Her family will always cherish their memories with her, a woman who valued strength and unity of family.
Josette was their one and only matriarch, and will always be dearly loved.
Mommy was an advocate and an enforcer of correct behavior, a consummate disciplinarian. And with her, transgressors always seemed to accept their correction without question because they knew that whenever they got it right, the same lady would be right there to recognize and reward them. She did not only intervene to correct what was done wrong; she also praised success by highlighting what was done right.
Mommy was blessed with a strong mind, a great heart. She was a woman of true faith whose hands were always ready to serve. She raised us up not merely to do things right but to do right things.
Josette learnt from her parents the joy one gets from loving and helping poor people.
They were her friends. She was humble, ordinary, forthright and kind. And she taught us – Teresa-Anne, Soraya, Louise Hughes (the daughter she adopted from her cook) and myself, the same lessons. You can see her children and grandchildren following her lead.
We came to know the joy of her style of living and loving and giving and caring.
As a child of God, a lover of life, a model of independence and self-reliance, an indefatigable soldier against evil and injustice, Mommy’s soul, inspired and ablaze, cleared the road to new and better days for the family she grounded through the storms of life with an anchor that kept our souls steadfast and sure while the billows rolled.
At the completion of the earthly journey of this good and faithful servant, as she finds fulfillment in the accomplishment of her mission of betterment, I quote the famed Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran:
For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountaintop, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
Dance, Dear Josette… dance on.
Her Excellency Josette Michael… 1941 to 2022. She lived with a commitment to equal opportunity and a passion for alleviating poverty and building self-reliance. She died with the fervent hope that injustice will not continue to infect the politics of national development; freedom will never weep; and there will be no sleeping at the wheels of progress and prosperity.
And I call upon you all who have gathered with us – her family – to pay a final tribute to her and to say farewell, to take comfort in the fact that, as Jesus Christ Our Lord promised, his resurrection has conquered death and granted life to all who believe in him.
Though our beloved Josette has died, yet she shall live, and in that life by faith, she shall never truly die.
We are in a long night of grief, but joy will come in the new mornings ahead when we remember Josette, when we recall her gentle smile and her generous laugh, and when we see her in the good that she gave – and in seeing her, we will rejoice.
We honour Her Excellency Ambassador Josette Michael.
May she rest in peace, and rise in Glory.
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