Print Edition: Feb. 22, 2015
Sign-up for our E-letter!
To: (Multiple email addresses may be specified by separating them with a comma)
Religious orders are bringing relief to Haitians, whose suffering from the Jan. 12 earthquake may last for quite a while.
BY JOAN FRAWLEY DESMONDREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
Almost two months after an
earthquake leveled most of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, Catholic religious
orders are struggling to begin the transition from disaster relief to
rebuilding vital Church and social institutions.
The devastating Jan. 12 earthquake
that killed over 220,000 people may be fading from public consciousness in the
developed West, and may have been upstaged in the media by two particularly
strong earthquakes the weekend of Feb. 27, a 6.9-magnitude temblor in Japan and
an 8.8-magnitude quake in Chile (Story, page 2).
The next phase of the earthquake
response faces enormous hurdles, complicated by the destruction of religious
institutions in and around the capital, including the national cathedral,
seminaries, schools and convents.
Like more than a million internally
displaced Haitians, many nuns and priests reside outdoors in makeshift tent
camps. There they scramble to provide the needy with food, shelter and medical
care and have little time to plot the road ahead.
But even experienced Church
administrators and missionaries responsible for setting long-term plans are
sticking with transitional solutions for now. Haitian leaders and foreign-aid
groups are still reviewing the safety of rebuilding on a major earthquake fault
line — even as makeshift homes spring up amid the chaotic and filthy conditions
of the tent camps in Port-au-Prince.
“When is Haiti going to repair
itself? I don’t know. We are at the beginning of the beginning of the end of
the emergency period. Aid was slow in arriving, but now it is there,” said
Jesuit Father Kenneth Gavin, national director of Jesuit Refugee Services USA.
During a recent trip to Haiti,
Father Gavin conferred with Jesuit Refugee Services’ administrators in both the
Dominican Republic and Haiti to review plans for the resettlement of Haitians
who have little chance of reconstituting their life in the ruined capital.
Jesuit Refugee Services plans to provide semi-permanent housing and to open
schools for displaced children.
The nascent resettlement effort
outside Port-au-Prince could help resolve the increasingly serious public
health problem of inadequate waste management in tent camps: By April, the
onset of the rainy season will turn these areas into vast mud pits, fueling
outbreaks of cholera, dysentery and typhoid.
The desolation of the capital has
tested the local Church’s resolve and hope as it moves toward an uncertain
future. Missionaries like Father Tom Hagan, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales
priest, of Hands Together devoted decades to building eight schools, homes for
150 elderly people, a soup kitchen and a medical clinic in Cité Soleil, one of
the poorest and most dangerous slums in the capital.
Today, there remains only rubble,
and Hands Together must work with the people it serves to begin anew.
Father Gavin visited the grounds of
the severely damaged Jesuit novitiate, where thousands have sought food and
share living quarters with priests, seminarians and visiting teams of
physicians. There he met a young Haitian Jesuit who still mourned the loss of
his parish church.
“He told me, ‘People are coming to
me for help — and I’m used to that — but now I have nothing to give them.’ We
visited his church, and there was nothing left of it but a mangled cross, a
bell and a statue of an angel kneeling before the tabernacle.”
Father Mark Francis, superior
general of the Viatorians, who lost a number of buildings in the quake, noted
with sadness that Church compounds had always served as a safe harbor and a
central meeting place for Haitians, even under the best of circumstances.
“The Church often had the only
decent buildings around. Now the buildings are gone, but the people still want
to be there,” observed Father Francis during a telephone interview from Rome.
At present, four Viatorians care for
approximately 1,000 displaced persons camped out in the compound of their once
thriving retreat center. There are 40 Viatorians in the country, mostly
Haitians and a few Canadians. The order’s retreat center had once been its
largest facility in the country, providing literacy and catechetical training,
and offering an oasis for missionaries who needed time to recharge.
Heartened by the generous donations
the order received in the wake of the quake, the Viatorians plan to rebuild.
But before they can begin, difficult, unfinished work awaits them.
Like much of the capital, the
Viatorians’ compound lies in rubble that must still be removed. Worse yet, many
weeks after the quake, the bodies of five employees and several guests still
remain under the collapsed buildings. Haiti lacks the necessary heavy equipment
to address the problem. Thus, even religious orders armed with a rebuilding
plan must wait their turn for outside technical assistance.
The Missionaries of Charity, with a
string of convents and orphanages across Haiti, were more fortunate than the
Viatorians: The sisters and those in their care suffered no fatalities in the
wake of the earthquake. An evacuated orphanage subsequently collapsed following
In the immediate aftermath of the
disaster, Missionaries of Charity — like many other Catholic orders caring for
orphans and facilitating adoptions — decided to bring the children under their
care to the United States. Children with completed paperwork would go to their
new homes, while youngsters still undergoing rehabilitation and awaiting
adoptive parents would be cared for during an interim period.
That plan fell apart after a U.S.
church group sought to bring Haitian “orphans” to the Dominican Republic
without sufficient authorization, in the chaotic aftermath of the earthquake.
Haiti’s government then imposed new rules that blocked the departure of any
child who lacked completed adoption paperwork.
In the ensuing weeks, many more
children have been brought to the Missionaries of Charity’s two primary
orphanages in Haiti, and the sisters have continued their ministry to the
elderly, the handicapped and the sick.
At present, the order is
supplementing the service of its Haiti-based sisters with monthly deployments
from U.S. convents on the East Coast. Miami-based convents are managing supply
needs. A $500,000 grant from the Papal Foundation will ensure that the order’s
work in Haiti, including emergency outreach, continues in the weeks and months
Lane Hartill, a spokesman for
Catholic Relief Services, recently visited one of the Missionaries of Charity’s
feeding programs in the capital.
“They not only feed the people who
live within their compound, but also the community around it. A lot of people
know they have food and rely on them,” reported Hartill.
The sisters have established large
outdoor cooking spaces to provide hot meals for the needy. When Hartill stopped
by, “big garbage cans of scrambled eggs and rice were being cooked. It was
clear when I talked to the sisters that they really needed food. The need is
Since the earthquake hit
Port-au-Prince, Catholic Relief Services has worked with long-time partners
like the Missionaries of Charity, along with many other orders, to feed an
estimated 600,000 Haitians. However, millions of displaced people are only now
receiving adequate rations, and public protests have signaled their anger at
the slow pace of relief assistance.
The arrival of the seasonal rains
will only intensify the misery of the displaced Haitians, and missionaries and
relief agencies alike acknowledge that the status quo is untenable. The
country’s political leaders have expressed doubts about rebuilding in the
ruined capital, but the government has only begun to identify suitable areas
for resettlement, and experts question whether the displaced can eke out a
living beyond the capital.
As foreign governments and
international aid groups debate the options, religious leaders have strongly
encouraged Haitians themselves to take a place at the table. The Jesuits in
Haiti have organized meetings of leading intellectuals, religious and other
figures to develop a vision and principles to guide the rebuilding process.
Haiti’s long history has been
punctuated by periods of foreign occupation that still leave a bitter taste.
Today, while earthquake victims
remain grateful for foreign aid — secured in part by thousands of U.S. troops —
they worry that Haitians will be pushed aside as foreigners direct the
country’s future path.
“We need to accompany the people, to
be God’s presence, respecting them and seeing how God is truly present in his
community,” said Father Gavin. “We do not throw provisions at people — that is
not what this is about. We want to know their hopes and dreams, what they want
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase,
Copyright © 2015 EWTN News, Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of material from this website without written permission is strictly prohibited.
Accessed from 18.104.22.168