When the walls came tumbling down in the city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in a magnitude-5.9 earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, the world saw a country that not only lost loved ones and a way of life — many lost hope. But not all of Haiti’s spirit was crushed that day, as the story of Gabriel Thelus attests.
If you ask Thelus his favorite Haitian proverb, he would instantly tell you, “Piti Piti zwazo fenich” meaning, “Little by little the bird makes the nest.” That’s because his father taught him to take one task at a time.
At 46, Thelus has been completing tasks in his father’s footsteps for 30 years. One of five children born to Jacson and Sylfica (Prophete), his father, a poor farmer, had little to give his children but a dream in his heart.
Thelus was raised in the rural village of Jacsonville (formerly Matabonite) in Haiti, located in the sinewy folds of mountains in the northeast region of the Central Plateau, some 200 miles from the capital of Port-au-Prince.
In high school, with a nod to his dad’s dream, he founded an organization called AJAK, an acronym from Haitian Creole meaning “association, youth, future, Christian.”
Unfortunately, Thelus’ family couldn’t afford to educate him when it was time to go to college. But in 1990, Thelus had the opportunity to meet Xaverian Brother Cosmas Rubencamp, who currently holds a board position on the Maison Fortuné Orphanage Foundation Inc., and that changed his life. Brother Cosmas was visiting the Diocese of Hinche with a group and met Thelus’ family.
Father Richard Mooney, who first met Gabriel Thelus while campus minister at Virginia Tech,says he is inspired by the Haitian man’s unstoppable drive to do good.
“I adore the man. If Jesus isn’t who he said he is, then Gaby’s life makes no sense at all. He came back to his home and by sheer force of will, vision, love of God and the spirit, he’s here. He’s an amazing man. I’ve given 32 years to the priesthood and nothing compares with him. I think he’s a saint of the Church and I’ve only met a few people who I felt deserved it. I can’t wait to see the mission house finished. They made it all by hand. They made the cinder blocks on the site by hand. This building is built by hand.”
But first, Thelus needed to improve his fluency in English. He studied with David Goy, the first full-time volunteer sent to Haiti by the twinning parish program created by then-Bishop Walter Sullivan of the Diocese of Richmond, Va., and the Diocese of Hinche. After tutelage and training along with support from St. Mary’s Church in Blacksburg, he was accepted by Virginia Tech in 1992.
“I wanted to be an agronomist and continue my father’s work,” Thelus said. He studied hard without visits home on holidays or breaks and graduated with an associate’s degree in agronomy from Virginia Tech in 1994. He packed up, returned to Haiti and resumed work with the association. In 1995 they built St. Rose de Lima, the first chapel in the village, where his father served as sacristan.
During this time, Thelus envisioned a Catholic mission house that would eventually become a landmark for visitors and provide accommodations for Catholic priests, sisters, teachers and volunteers in Haiti and the United States.
Meanwhile, in October 1997, under Thelus’ leadership, the association focused efforts on building a Catholic grade school with 250 gourdes — the equivalent of $6.25. “We start projects with little money and sometimes with none at all,” he said. Nonetheless, a year later, St. Rose de Lima Elementary School, auditorium and cafeteria were completed. The project proceeded “step by step” as Thelus was taught by his father who lived to see completion of the school. Present enrollment is 300 students.
‘Start with one room...’
“My dad — I learned his logic,” Thelus said with a generous grin. “He always found the right way to do something. One thing I really admired from him — he was very, very patient. He would try something a hundred times. He wanted to start something from small to grow. For example, if you want to build a house, start with one room and then build six or seven.” The association renamed the town “Jacsonville” in his father’s memory in 2006.
Catholic students of St. Margaret School in Bel Air, Md., began small when they started a “One Million Pennies Campaign.” They collected $5,000 toward construction of a bridge to cross Ravin Tach (Palm Leaf Creek) in Jacsonville. Without a bridge, it was impossible to travel to Pignon, the nearest town, during the rainy season because the river flooded. The “Million Penny Bridge” (“Pon Senk Kob” or “Penny Bridge”) was finished in 2007.
While the bridge eased access for people, work on the mission house remained daunting due to deeply rutted dirt roads making travel difficult. Villagers continue to walk and rely on donkeys for transportation or to carry items.
Shane Barnett, a design engineer for Medeco, volunteered to work on the mission house from December 2008 to September 2009. He said Thelus practiced cost-cutting measures by hiring experienced family members to help with the ceiling and electricity; workers removed nails and flattened used wood to recycle it; and trees were cut down by local teens to use as stakes to support the ceiling. The project provided jobs for skilled residents in the community.
Laborers worked for a daily wage of $10 and a plate of rice. Barnett was impressed by how hard the Haitians worked for long periods of time in the intense heat. He felt he couldn’t keep up with them. “The community, being a rural village, felt like family, and neighbors passing by had no problem with giving up an hour out of their day to help if you asked them for it,” Barnett said. Every day people offered him food or sugar cane juice.
Brother Cosmas sees God guiding the work of Thelus through his Catholic faith.
“Everything Gaby does is reflecting of the Gospel message of Matthew 25:31-46 and the social teaching of the Church, which I think is implicit in everything he does, whether consciously or not,” he said.
“All one has to do is look around — from first crossing over the bridge they built over the stream at the entrance to the town, just about everything one sees on every side is an outgrowth of the original AJAK’s creativity and energy under Gaby’s inspired leadership,” Brother Cosmas said.
With countless projects that require his attention, Thelus relies on the love and support of his wife, Maricile. They have three children: Marie Gabrielle, 15, Garel, 13 and Dominica, 10. She works with women’s sewing groups to make items to sell, operates a store in the city of Cap Haitian and cooks three meals a day for visitors at the mission house.
Admittedly, what Thelus is doing is not an easy job and he encounters difficulties. He says, “There are good days and bad times. We need a lot of encouragement. We still need prayer and continuous support. I feel this is God’s will to get it done and he will always help us. My father said if we don’t get it done, we need to teach our kids to get it done. I started teaching my children already. I sit with them and tell them exactly what my father told us.”
Paula A. Smith writes from Pennsylvania.