My Recent Experience in Haiti

Quite a few parishioners have asked about my trip to our sister parish in Haiti in late July.  So, here is a brief re-cap of the five days:

I departed by car from Dubuque on Wednesday, July 24 and stayed with my son Matt and his wife Selma and their two boys in Chicago.  Thursday morning it was up at 3:00 am to get to O’Hare to depart for Miami at 6:00 am.  From Miami, it was about a 675 mile flight to the city of Cap-Haitian on the north shore of Haiti, arriving at 1:30 pm.  Fr. Paul Dorlean met me at the airport.  He was accompanied by Fr. Roland Vilfort, who translated from Creole to English, the entire time of my stay.  He also drove the 38 miles to Gonaives where St. Terese of the Child Jesus is located.  What I didn’t know was that this trip would be a four hour drive through muddy, rutted dirt roads in the valleys and unpaved, stony terrain in the mountains. 

Along the way, my eyes were opened to emaciated cattle and dogs, and Haitian people living in unpainted, concrete block houses, most of which were what we would consider shacks here in the U.S.  The streets of any cities along the way were filled with debris and garbage.  Many people were standing idle, attesting to the 65% un-employment rate throughout the country.  I saw truckloads of workers, 3-4 people car-pooling on small motorcycles, and women washing their clothes in the small streams, or carrying huge bundles on their heads.

Upon arrival at 5:30 pm, I was welcomed by the 95+ degree weather and 100% humidity which would be constant day and night for the duration of my stay.  We stayed at the rectory at the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chapel which was built through the generous contributions of St. Joseph the Worker parishioners.  It is located right in the middle of the slums of Gonaives.  Most of the people had to move to this foot of the mountain area several years ago because their downtown homes had been totally destroyed by a hurricane.  Without even a fan, the temperature was worse than my childhood memories of no air-conditioning.  From the view of the balcony, I could see a city that looked more like a maze of little dilapidated, multi-colored tin roof shacks squeezed so close together that there was no room for a street to access them.

On Friday morning, it was up as the roosters crowed at 5:00 am.  We celebrated Mass at 6:30 am and Fr. Paul gave me the privilege of baptizing 5 babies during the Mass.  I quickly discovered at Communion time that their custom is for the minister to dip the host in Christ’s Blood and then all receive it on the tongue rather than in the hand.  After breakfast, we visited the remains of St. Terese of the Child Jesus Church in downtown Gonaives.  The parish community worships in an open air pavilion, where a summer camp which we were sponsoring, was being held for the children.  It almost brought tears to my eyes to see and hear them joyfully singing a song of welcome.  Following this was time for several photographs of us with the children.

Our next stop was the school which has been built through the generosity of St. Joseph the Worker parishioners.  To date, it only consists of two grades of children.  Fr. Paul dreams of adding one classroom and grade level per year with our help.  In striking contrast to our schools, was the garbage pile with stray sheep and goats eating from it right in the front of the muddy and rocky schoolyard.  Two little girls were walking through it with a goat following not far behind them.

It was then back to the rectory for lunch, baked fish with the eyes still in, rice with bean sauce, fruit and water.  Then we visited with the Pastoral Council for the next 1-1/2 hour as Fr. Paul wanted to begin our establishing a relationship with his parishioners and not only him.  Shortly after this, a storm with torrents of rain cooled things down, but only for an hour or so.  Fr. Paul was delighted when I presented him with a new moderately-priced computer from SJTW and a monstrance with altar bread from Dubuque, so he could begin offering adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to the people. 

On Saturday, it was time to celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony at 9:00 am.  So we got vested, not knowing we would be waiting until 10:30 am for the bride to show up.

I should have known something was up when the music ministry began playing Yankee Doodle, Jingle Bells, How Great Thou Art, Danny Boy, and O My Darlin’ Clementine as we waited.  During the wedding, it seemed odd that people were coming and going during the 45 minute homily.  Later I discovered it was because they forgot the wedding rings.  The highlight for me was Fr. Paul calling me over to witness the wedding vows.

After a change of my wet clothes, it was on to pay a visit to the Vicar General, Msgr. Nicholas Victesse, who gave us a tour of the St. Charles Borromeo Cathedral.  After that, we returned to the rectory for goat casserole, fruit, rice and beans and a bottle of “Prestige”, the national beer of Haiti.

From there, we went on foot to the first of six Communion calls to homebound elderly women.  I would have gotten lost in the maze of houses without the priests with me.  The interior of the houses were more like dark, squalid caves.  They were made of concrete blocks with no apparent electricity.  Their clothes hung on ropes strung on the wall.  The yards were more like small farmyards with chickens, maybe a goat, and a burning garbage pile.  Though one of the women could barely walk, she still insisted on her hospitably getting each of us a chair to sit on.  Giving each of them Holy Communion was one of the most moving experiences of the five days.  It reminded me of what we have all heard Mother Teresa saying about seeing the face of Jesus in the poor.

Upon arrival back at the rectory, Fr. Paul shared his dream about a new church, school expansion, and need for a better water purification system at the rectory to serve the need for drinkable water in the houses in the surrounding poverty-stricken area.

On Sunday, it was up with chickens; but they did sleep in until 5:30 am.  Mass was at 7:15 am and two young married adults received Jesus for the first time in Holy Communion.  Fr. Paul preached for 45 minutes.  Fr. Roland was not present to translate, so I did not understand a word of what he said.  I later discovered he was articulating on seven points in the Our Father, 6-7 minutes on each of them.  As they listened, the body language of quite a few worshippers did not look all that positive about the lengthy homily.

Assisting as deacon, I prepared the altar, invited the Sign of Peace in English, remembered the host dipping, and wondered how sick I might get from drinking the water with which I purified the chalice after Communion.  The community presented me with a plaque at the end of Mass, to which I offered a few words of gratitude on behalf of St. Joseph the Worker.

We ended up taking pictures with many of the children after Mass.  I’m sure I was an oddity to some of them.  In a city of 200,000 people, I was 1 of 2 white persons I was aware of during the entire time there.  And without a mirror, I was not even able to see myself during the five days.

We had lunch with three other parish council members after Mass.  After that, Fr. Paul elaborated more on his hope to expand the school by adding 1 classroom per year over the next 6 years at a cost of $30K per year, getting a reverse osmosis water purification system at a cost of $7,000, and developing a micro-credit system for the poor of the area. 

In essence, this consists of the parish providing a $200 loan to parishioners to help them get started in self-employment.

We left Gonaives at 7:00 am Monday morning via the four hour, 38 mile haul back to Cap-Haitian.  After a 2 hour plane delay in Miami, I arrived at O’Hare in Chicago at 10:41 pm and drove back to Dubuque, arriving home at 2:00 am. Thanks to all who made this trip possible.  I hope and pray that my sharing of this unique experience will bear further fruit for our brothers and sisters in Haiti, for us at SJTW, for the coming of the Kingdom, and the glory of God.