FATHER Christopher Hartley is still fighting for the rights of workers in the Dominican Republic, even as he takes on a new mission in East Africa.
The appalling conditions he found on the sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic, where Haitian immigrants were treated as little better than slaves, became the subject of a 2007 documentary, The Price of Sugar, narrated by Paul Newman.
Father Hartley spoke with Register news editor John Burger from Ethiopia, where he is working with the Missionaries of Charity.
Tell me about your life growing up in Spain.
I was born in Britain and raised in Spain. My father’s English and my mother’s Spanish. At the age of 15 I entered the diocesan seminary in the Archdiocese of Toledo in Spain. In 1982, I was ordained by Pope John Paul II during his first apostolic voyage to Spain.
After two years of service in the Archdiocese of Toledo, I came to the U.S. at the invitation of Mother Teresa to come and work in the poorest area of the South Bronx [New York City] and serve with the Missionaries of Charity.
You decided very early in your life to pursue the priesthood. How did that come about?
I suppose every priest would agree with me that a priestly vocation is truly a mystery — the realization that God is calling you is truly a mystery. But, nevertheless, I find it particularly difficult. In fact, I can say that I’ve never really told anyone what actually happened. … When I was 16 years old, on March 8, 1974, I recall coming home from school and sitting at the edge of my bed and realizing that I was very unhappy, without any particular reason to feel unhappy. Because, really, I’d been very blessed at that very early stage of my life with a wonderful family.
And suddenly, I realized how much God loved me and that I wanted to give my whole life to him. So that was really what triggered my particular call to the priesthood. I immediately told my father, who by the way was not Catholic, who was Anglican, and I did have the full support of my parents at that very early age.
Would you say your family laid the foundation for that vocation in any way?
I’m sure they played a crucial role, of course, because we are Catholic because of my mother. But even so, as I said before, the very fact that I could tell my father — the first person I told was him — that I wanted to be a priest indicated how supportive he was, even being Anglican, of any decision his children would take, as long as I was, obviously, reasonable. And he accepted beautifully.
I don’t think he fully understood all the implications of that decision at a very early age in the life of your child, especially not sharing the same full communion of faith. But I have to say, my parents played a crucial role, not only in the birth of the call but even more importantly in nurturing that vocation and having their full support, and their prayers meant everything to me. I’m sure that, whatever I am today, in very large measure, I owe it to them.
What led you to the Dominican Republic?
A couple of factors. One was having met the Dominican community in the Archdiocese of New York and becoming acquainted with that pastoral reality. I realized the tremendous need of these people, and it gave me the opportunity of traveling quite a few times to the Dominican Republic during my time of service in the Archdiocese of New York.
But what was really the final push was a priest friend of mine from my seminary days who was serving in the Dominican Republic. He used to come with some regularity to New York City and kept insisting on the needs of the people of the Dominican Republic, especially in the diocese where he was serving at that moment, San Pedro de Macorís. The neighboring parish where he was serving, a very rural area, had been without a priest for 10 years. There would have been a great opportunity for us to be together and work together in that kind of ministry.
I had always had a kind of restlessness while I was in New York to want to lead a more radical life and be close to the poorest of the poor, which had been very much at the heart of my original call to the priesthood and my years of contact with Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity, even during my seminary formation. So there was always a kind of spiritual tension within me to want to be closer to the poorest of the poor, and I think that was the occasion that presented itself, and God used the fact that this priest friend of mine was there already to draw me to that priestly service to the Church.
What did you discover, and how did it turn into The Price of Sugar?
All I knew was that it was a very poor place and the people had many needs and that I was going with great enthusiasm to serve them. … The first years were basically a time of exploring and discovering, just getting to know the people and beginning to understand the reality and the circumstances in which these people were living. So it took me the first two to three years to begin to grasp the magnitude of the tragedy in which these people were living. I had no preparation, no training, no formal training, in human rights — just my regular seminary formation and just common sense, human decency in what is right and what is wrong.
But the Lord provided me with a unique opportunity at the end of January 2000 to speak in front of the president of the Dominican Republic. I was actually asked to make a kind of invocation, basically invoking God’s blessings upon the president of the Dominican Republic. And what was supposed to be a simple blessing turned out to be a five-page speech describing for the president the appalling living and working conditions of the many thousands of men, women and children in those plantations. Because it was the president who was presiding over the event, much to my dismay, it was all over the Dominican press, the front page of every newspaper. And the expression they actually used was, “Mr. President, whether you realize it or not, you have come to the threshold of hell.” And that kind of became the catch phrase in just about every newspaper.
From there on, the Vicini family [owners of the local sugar plantation] got in touch with me and with the bishop of San Pedro and demanded we have a meeting to explain the misunderstandings and misinformation — obviously, I was a foreigner, I didn’t know anything, I was mistaken, etc. — to which we agreed, and the bishop brought together a team so it wouldn’t be just me and they.
Far from accepting their excuses or apologies or misunderstandings we were adamant that this is what was going on. … We met with the Vicini family during very friendly well-mannered meetings for at least three years til the beginning of 2003. … But nothing really changed except we had become very good friends.
So I invited some journalists from Spain and they published a very good article in El Mundo, titled “A Priest in Hell.” That definitely severed our conversation and any kind of relationship with the family. They became furious and decided to break off any contact with the Church, particularly with me.
Subsequent to that, other journalists picked up on that article, and that’s how kind of a snowball began to get bigger and bigger, and that’s how Bill Haney in 2003, 2004 began to get involved with this story and decided to make this documentary.
Was there a particular event that really convinced you there was a problem in the way the Haitians were being treated?
One incident that really sticks in my mind was the story of a little girl named Roberta. I remember going to a kind of summer camp in one of these bateyes [shantytowns] and I remember this little girl who never played. So we turned to her and asked what was wrong with her, and suddenly we realized that her little, filthy, disgusting dress literally adhered to her skin, was literally glued to her skin. And we realized that her whole body was covered with sores and wounds, that she was HIV positive, and this poor girl had been living with this disease for quite some time now. And we went to visit her family, her little hamlet, where her five brothers and sisters, father and mother were living in two beds in a tiny little shack.
Roberta had no access to medical services. Roberta had never been to a doctor. Roberta had never had a blood test done on her. Roberta never ate properly. And she was the daughter of an employee of the richest man of the richest family in the Dominican Republic. And nobody cared. And of the many Robertas that still lived in those plantations, one of the things that stuck in my mind was that for all those anonymous Robertas, I want to do something to change this despicable situation.
John Burger is the
Register’s news editor.
- For screenings at schools and churches call or email New Yorker Films at: Tel: 877-247-6200, or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Home DVD scheduled for release on September 23rd, 2008
- For more information on the film see: http://www.thepriceofsugar.com