Solidarity Visit to Haiti: 17 December 2011

Tuesday, December 20 2011

housesEach day the solidarity visit begins with a celebration of the Eucharist. The entrance verse for Saturday, 17 December, was from the Prophet Isaiah: “Our Lord will come to show mercy to the poor.” The delegation drove later in the morning south of Port-au-Prince to the rural community of Duval. Two staff members from the archdiocesan offices of Caritas Port-au-Prince slowly guided the visitors up steep and rocky mountain trails. The parish has 48,000 Catholics; in part of the parish, 90 per cent of the houses were destroyed in the January 2010 earthquake. Because access is so difficult, it has not been easy to organize assistance or bring in supplies. Aid was also delayed because of the impact of Hurricane Tomas in November 2010. Each new house takes an average of two months to build because transportation is so difficult and so limited.

Two rural development projects

Nevertheless, two major rural development projects in this area are well underway. These are possible because of the collaboration of Caritas Port-au-Prince with a number of Caritas organizations from other countries, including the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. Each project includes the construction of new houses; the provision of a dispensary, micro-credit and schools; the supply of seeds, livestock and farm tools; as well as formation in agricultural skills, soil conservation and disaster risk management. Over the past one and a half years, Development and Peace has invested more than $2.7 million into the two projects.

“It is evident these projects and the new housing enable people to rediscover their human dignity,” said Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. The earthquake was a disaster, explained Mr. Gérald Desgranges, one of the two young agronomists from Caritas Port-au-Prince who accompanied the Canadian visitors, “but it was also an occasion to deepen and extend our solidarity with other Catholic organizations around the world.” “It is only because of Caritas that we have hope here,” added the local pastor, Father Nazaire Isaac.

wallFurther up the mountain, the Canadian visitors watched 80 men, women and children constructing a 30-metre-long stone wall by hand and pickaxe. This is one of a series of walls needed to terrace the mountainside. Twice each week, four hours each time, they gather to cooperate in building the walls. Although terraced gardening had been practised before, it was on an individual basis and guided only by personal experience and intuition. Now, because of the collaborative approach and with the help of trained agrologists and engineers from Caritas Port-au-Prince, the walls are more solid and better designed to withstand the effects of weather and erosion. The terraces will retain rainfall, as well as hold cattle, and protect plants such as tomatoes, corn, cabbages and peppers. It takes six days of collaborative labour to build one wall. The second project to be seen later in the day was even larger. About 300 men, women and children had formed a human chain to build a long stone wall on an extremely steep mountain. 

‘Our work is a sign of our commitment’

When asked if the people become discouraged by the hardness of the work, one of the project leaders said, “No. They are full of courage. They see their lives improve, and before the project began we explained there would be challenges.” “Our communal work is a sign of our commitment to development,” another project leader said. “It is love which has brought this help to you,” explained the second young agrologist from Caritas Port-au-Prince, Mr. Antoine Verlaine Bien-aimé, speaking to those labouring on the mountainside. “Development and Peace was not obliged to provide assistance. Now it is up to each Haitian to work.”

The pastor of the recently established neighbouring parish, Father Jesse Bélizaire, has a parish church and eight mission chapels. At each location where he celebrates Sunday Mass the church is always full, he said. The Canadian visitors walked over to observe a formation session in the meeting room next to the parish church. The topic was emergency planning. The room was full of about 30 or more men and women who were being trained to become formation leaders throughout this rural community. They sat at desks made of roughly hewn wooden planks. The walls and floor were cement; the ceiling was the tin roof.

“The people of Canada are very close to you, certainly with their assistance but especially in prayer,” Archbishop Smith told the group. “C’est la chose la plus importante,” one of the men in the class responded. “That’s the most important thing.”

presbytereThe residence for the pastor was a humble structure of cement and concrete blocks, with chickens searching around the walls for food. Three-quarters of the parish budget comes from outside the community, through contributions from friends and supporters in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere. The simple parish church, dedicated to the Apostle Saint Jude, “patron saint of helpless causes”, had stucco walls, a cement floor and again a ceiling that was simply the tin roof. Seating was made up of metal chairs, wooden pews and old school desks. A little girl dressed in white sat at the back of the church with members of her family. She was waiting to be baptized. Near the altar in front was the rough framework of the Christmas crèche. Next week at this time we will be getting ready for Midnight Mass, Father Jesse said.

Earlier, the CCCB President and Vice President had recalled how at the end of their visit this past November with the Holy Father, they had asked if he had a special message for them and for the Church in Canada. Pope Benedict XVI had responded, “Courage and hope.” The visit up the mountainside today had been a lesson in both.

Archbishop Smith and Archbishop Durocher are accompanied on their solidarity visit to Haiti by Development and Peace Executive Director Mr. Michael Casey, its Latin America and Caribbean Programs Officer Mr. Normand Comte, and its communications officer Mr. François Gloutnay, as well as CCCB Assistant General Secretary Mr. Bede Hubbard.

By Bede Hubbard
Assistant General Secretary
Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops