by John Arrison, St. Margaret’s, Belfast
Diocesan Haiti Partnership Coordinator
On May 1, 1861, the Rev. James Theodore Holly, an African-American abolitionist and Episcopal priest, sailed from New Haven with 110 free blacks, bound for Haiti. The first year was devastating. Holly’s wife, mother, two children, and 39 others in his group died of yellow fever or malaria. In 1865 the Episcopal Church’s Board of Missions formally backed his mission, and a year later the Bishop of Maine, the Rt. Rev. George Burgess, made a pastoral visit to confirm new members. Holly would be ordained the first African-American Bishop in the Episcopal Church in 1874.
Bishop Burgess forged a tie between Maine and the Diocese of Haiti that is thriving today. The Dioceses of Maine and Haiti have voted to be “companion” dioceses. Fourteen Maine parishes are in partnership with churches, schools and clinics in Haiti. Over 150 years the Diocese of Haiti has grown to become the most populous diocese in the Episcopal Church. With about 95 parishes and missions, it also runs primary and secondary schools, trade schools, a music school, a nursing school, a seminary, a university, many clinics, and a hospital. Is this the fruit of outreach vision or what?!
This spring is a time of Maine trips to Haiti. Marti Torbeck and the Rev. Michael Ambler of Grace Episcopal Church in Bath organized a trip with fourteen people to Ouanaminthe, on the border with the Dominican Republic. The following week, a group led by Sara Merrill and Sue Raftice from St. Alban’s, Cape Elizabeth, visited their partner parish, St. Luc’s, Trou-du-Nord. In May, Suzie and Frazier Meade of St. Andrew’s, Newcastle, will be replenishing their Haitian art inventory and visiting their partner parish, St. Luc’s, Figaro.
I had the good fortune to join Marti’s group, whose members came from four Maine parishes, including Grace Church, Bath; St. Mary’s, Falmouth; St. Luke’s, Wilton; and St. Margaret’s, Belfast. Marti has had a long relationship as a supporter and board member for Insitition Univers, an ecumenical Christian school founded in 1994. Hughes Bastien, the founder, is a native of Ouanaminthe who returned to Haiti to build the school after receiving an education in the U.S. He started the school with just one class of kindergartners in 1994. It grew one class at a time, until now there are 2,100 students from kindergarten through 13th grade (using the French system of education). How impressive to see all these students under one roof!
Our group’s work for the week was to assist teaching conversational English at Institution Univers and work closely with advanced students in preparation for their taking the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). We had some really amazing team members who knew all the ins and outs of the test, along with being wonderful teachers, mentors, and friends to the students.
As the Diocesan Partnership Coordinator, I had two goals, apart from helping the group at Institution Univers: to visit our partner parish, St. Etienne’s, in Limonade, and to visit as many partner churches and schools as I could in the north of Haiti.
On our first full day in Haiti, the team visited Episcopal parishes and schools in Limonade and Tru-du-Nord. On Saturday the group had an exciting bus ride to Grand Riviere-du-Nord, 15 miles south of Cap Haitien. There, we attended the afternoon worship service at Pere Noe Bernier’s mission, St. Matthias, partner parish to St. Mary’s, Falmouth. Becky Pride and Kelly Ianno represented St. Mary’s on their first trip to visit their partner. Pere Noe was celebrant and Michael Ambler preached, putting his fluent French to good use. The church building was once used for a business, and it is located right in the market section of the town. We could hear the clamor of market activity outside throughout the service. People looked through the doors to experience vicariously the love of Christ as they heard Michael’s sermon on the Samaritan woman at the well. During the service we even saw “Zacchaeus,” a young boy in this incarnation, hanging from the roof of the building next door, looking in at the service and even singing along with the hymns. He wanted to get a good look at Jesus!
On Sunday, Emily Scribner of St. Luke’s, Wilton, and I went to services at St. Etienne’s in Limonade, where Pere Louis Toussaint Rosanas is priest-in-charge. Pere Louis is also priest-in-charge at Emily’s partner church, St. Luc’s, Trou-du-Nord. The rest of the group went to Pere Noe’s home church in Cap Haitien, Church of the Holy Spirit. Again, Michael Ambler preached.
Pere Noe, formerly St. Margaret’s partner priest at St. Etienne’s is also priest-in-charge at Christ the King Church in Terrier Rouge, a partner parish of St. Mark’s, Waterville. Later in our week, I went with him to visit this budding mission, to provide a report to St. Mark’s. A wall marked two sides of the property, the beginning of “security” for two large tents that served as the church. I asked Pere Noe about his vision for Christ the King Church and school in 20 years. His reply: a school with 2,000 students. That seemed so unreal to me, until I later learned about the growth of Institution Univers from one class to 2,100 in 17 years. With God, all things are possible.
Pere Lenord Quatorze, another man of vision and compassion, is priest-in-charge in Gros Morne, a small city off in the mountains of northwest Haiti. He also leads St. Michel’s Church at Fiervil, partnered with St. John the Baptist in Thomaston, and St. Barnabas in Treuille, newly partnered with St. Ann’s, Windham, and St. Peter’s, Bridgton. A visit to Pere Lenord gave me an opportunity to visit both churches. He is also the priest-in-charge for St. Luc’s, Figaro, partner to St. Andrew’s, Newcastle, where the Meades will be visiting in May.
Treuille can only be reached after a bone-crunching drive up a riverbed to Fiervil, followed by a two-mile hike into the mountains. With Pere Lenord and Markson, a travel companion assigned to me by Pere Noe, we were ably piloted up the riverbed in a tap-tap, a pickup truck with seats in the back. We picked our way up and through the gravelly Riviere Acul, working against the busy foot traffic of women, men, and beasts, carrying produce to market. Clearly, the tap-tap always had the right-of-way. We arrived at St. Michel’s, Fiervil and observed the school in session, about six classes held in different sections of the church sanctuary. Outside, women were preparing a mid-day meal for the students, thanks to support from St. John’s, Thomaston.
I was eager to visit St. Barnabas’s, Treuille, because St. Ann’s and St. Peter’s had raised $10,000 to add a school onto the church, and they had not yet had a chance to visit their new partner. Hiking up the trail to Treuille, we passed an older woman carrying one cinder block on her head. Soon I understood why. We arrived to see a roofless church surrounded by men and women making forms for the concrete columns for the school. On the ground were a few hundred cinder blocks. Each had been carried up the mountain. Five women emerged from a few hundred feet below the town, bearing five-gallon buckets of water on their heads. Every drop went to mix the concrete for the school. What an inspiring, deeply moving scene! Soon thereafter, we walked a couple of hundred yards to the pole barn where school is being held until the church and school are finished. The people of Treuille were very kind, despite or because of their remote location.
At St. Margaret’s partner parish of St. Etienne’s in Limonade, school enrollment was sharply reduced from what I had seen on my first visit three years ago. Pere Louis said many families couldn’t afford the yearly tuition of $60 to $90 he must charge to cover meager teacher salaries. Yet he also nurtures a vision – to bring more children back to school, to complete construction of the last couple of schoolrooms, and to expand his congregation on Sunday. The latter he hopes to do with more music, preferably amplified. With the help of a UTO grant and additional fundraising by St. Alban’s, Cape Elizabeth and support from many Maine churches, Pere Louis is also finishing a large addition to his church and school in Trou-du-Nord, about five miles east of Limonade.
What did I see and experience on this trip? People of God looking forward, broadening the work of the church, and building for future growth, even in the north while so much rebuilding is going on in the earthquake-torn south. And to help lead this effort, the House of Bishops, during our visit, approved a request from the Diocese of Haiti for a suffragan bishop to assist Bishop Duracin. In the midst of continued distress and deprivation, the Episcopal Church in Haiti is continuing the work begun by Bishop Holly with faith, hope, and love, knowing that with God, all things are possible.