Rebuilding the Roman Catholic Church in Haiti — all but wiped out in the earthquake — will take years, but the process has already begun…
Churches rising out of the ruins
BY JAWEED KALEEM AND FRANCES ROBLES
CONGREGATIONS CONTINUE: At St. Louis Roi church, the pews have been plucked from the rubble and are now lined up for outdoor services
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Mass at Port-au-Prince’s Sacred Heart Catholic church is held under a UNICEF tarp beside Coleman tents. Open-air, it’s conducted near the statue of the Virgin Mary, one of the few church treasures to survive the Jan. 12 earthquake.
“We don’t have anything else,” said Bertta Chery, who recently attended a service amid the ruins of the 105-year-old house of worship, one of Haiti’s most treasured. “We are all in the streets.”
With dozens of others, all dressed in their Sunday best, she prayed for the dead, for the living and — in a deeply faithful country where three out of five people are Catholic and most others are Protestant — for churches to rise again.
More than three weeks after disaster shattered Haitian life, the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince, the U.S. Catholic church and the Vatican have quietly begun the task of rebuilding the Catholic church in Haiti, arguably the country’s hardest-hit institution. Churches of other denominations are also looking toward reconstruction.
Sacred Heart was among at least 60 Catholic churches that collapsed in the 7.0 quake that killed more than 100 nuns and priests and the top church leadership. It’s estimated that seven out of every 10 Catholic churches were lost. Damage estimates run in the tens of millions of dollars.
The earthquake is believed to be the most devastating natural disaster to hit a Catholic diocese, said Bishop Joseph Lafontant. With the death of the archbishop and vicar general of Port-au-Prince, Lafontant is now one of the church’s top leaders in Haiti.
“As for material things — we can rebuild,” he said last week during a break from a daylong meeting with surviving priests. “In lives, the archdiocese suffered.”
In a country where the government has always struggled to provide even the most basic services, the Catholic Church has always been a lifeline — it runs schools, hospitals, orphanages and charities.
“In Haiti, the church is like a central living womb for the community,” said the Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary of Miami’s Notre Dame d’Haiti church, who has been conducting prayers and officiating funerals at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church in Port-au-Prince.
Complicating matters is the migration of tens of thousands of Haitians from Port-au-Prince, the church’s nerve center, to provincial towns and rural areas less impacted by the quake.
The Catholic church is less entrenched there, straining the limited resources even further. Protestant missionaries have taken up some of the slack.
HELP FROM OUTSIDE
“We’re talking about tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of damage,” said the Rev. Andrew Small of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaking only of the damage to church structures. The Vatican has tasked the U.S. church with spearheading reconstruction in Haiti, and Small is leading that effort.
Last week, Bishop Pierre Andre-Dumas of the Diocese of Anse–Veau et Miragone in western Haiti, met with Pope Benedict XVI and international Catholic leaders in Italy and appealed for aid to rebuild the Haitian church. Catholic groups around the world are beginning to respond.
Two German Catholic aid organizations have dedicated $6 million to the effort.
In late January, stateside churches raised $10 million through a special collection for relief and rebuilding. Small expects another $7.5 million to be raised in an annual collection to facilitate church growth in the Americas. Often funneled into disaster areas, much of that money will likely go to Haiti.
Catholic churches from other countries will also play a part in rebuilding.
“This is a many-year process,” said Small, who recently flew to Port-au-Prince to evaluate damages.
As a modest first step, the U.S. Catholic church has sent $30,000 worth of equipment to revitalize Radio Soleil, a Catholic radio station operating out of a van in minimally damaged Pétionville. While vast numbers of Haitians still don’t have churches to attend, they can listen to prayers on the radio, Small said.
PREVIOUS BIG EFFORTS
This is not the first large-scale church reconstruction stemming from an epic disaster.
When two devastating earthquakes — 7.6 and 6.6 on the Richter scale — hit El Salvador in early 2001, the U.S. Catholic church gave $1.5 million toward an international effort to rebuild 80 churches over three years. In 2007, when a 7.0 earthquake jolted Ica on the Peruvian coast, U.S. Catholics gave $300,000 to rebuild. And when hurricanes swept through Cuba in 2008, the U.S. church allocated $800,000 toward ongoing church rebuilding.
Yet, restoring the Haitian church will take longer and be costlier than anything that’s come before.
“You are not just talking about the church buildings. You are talking schools, clinics and dispensaries, convents and seminaries,” said Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, a former Miami pastor who is working with Small on rebuilding.
“It’s safe to say Port-au-Prince will need a cathedral again and the country will need seminaries once again, but where they are and how we go about doing it will need to be decided with the Haitians,” Small added.
PLANS FOR THE FUTURE
The Rev. Jean-Mary of Notre Dame d’Haiti is one of several South Florida Catholic clergymen to rushed to Haiti to fill the spiritual void. Others include the Rev. Robés Charles of St. Clement in Wilton Manors and the Rev. Jean Pierre of St. James in North Miami.
They are spearheading an effort that will soon have South Florida priests taking rotations there.
“You have bodies of your people, students, still in the rubble,” Jean-Mary said. “The survivors are in a state of shock. They are people of faith. They are not supermen and women. Down the road, construction of the church will be essential. Without that, people cannot go on.”
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