Notre Dame d’Haiti Parish just north of downtown Miami was well into a church building campaign (the parish has been worshipping in a parish hall since its 1981 inception) when the Jan. 12 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Pastor Father Reginald Jean-Mary and his 2,000 registered families took a central place in the earthquake recovery efforts within the Archdiocese of Miami. Notre Dame served as a collection center for donations and as a focal point for clergy, medical staff and Haitian and Haitian-American Catholic families going to and from Haiti.
A day before embarking on his sixth post-earthquake trip to Haiti with a team of American clergy, medical and support volunteers, Father Jean-Mary spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about recovery efforts in his native land and his recent meeting with Vice President Joe Biden.
Our Sunday Visitor: How did the earthquake affect you personally?
Father Reginald Jean-Mary: I did not have any immediate family who perished, but I do have cousins and relatives who died. Many people from my hometown perished. There were two young men I studied with in the minor seminary in Haiti, and one other classmate, who died. I am very close to the Montfort Fathers because I had studied with them. They lost about nine seminarians. I know many nuns who died, and I am very close to the sisters in Haiti. Moreover, to see so many people (hurt) and so much destruction did affect me at the beginning. We transcend that, and it is time to do something positive.
OSV: How has the quake affected your parish in Miami?
Father Jean-Mary: We had been doing very well in the campaign for the construction of a new church here. We are still worshipping in what used to be the old cafeteria meant to accommodate 600 people, but we have about 1,200 coming on Sunday. I thought that this was going to be the best year for the building project, but we cannot easily talk about that now with so many churches destroyed in Haiti. One hundred percent of what we collected after the earthquake we sent to the people in Haiti.
Notre Dame is the leading Haitian-Catholic parish here and a point of reference for the clergy in Haiti. It is the first place they would come for collections. Many displaced families from Haiti came here for help and sometimes we had to pull out of our own pocket to assist. God has a way of bringing us to deepen our ministry and faith in the spirit of service.
OSV: What have your archdiocesan response teams to Haiti been working on?
Father Jean-Mary: We use the dioceses there as part of our infrastructure, and go to different parishes where there are camps of 3,000 or 4,000 refugees. The doctors settle in and set up a clinic. The priests help with translations. We also do counseling with the families, and help the clergy with the celebration of Masses and funerals. The last time I was there, many people were dying, and I had four funerals. Sleeping outside, and the living conditions, means a cold turns into bronchitis or pneumonia, and they die. It is very difficult emotionally for the clergy to keep celebrating funerals and burying people.
OSV: Are students back to school?
Father Jean-Mary: I really don’t see how school is going to be able to function in Port-au-Prince with so much destroyed. The teachers and students have to sleep and work under very difficult conditions, and May is usually very hot. The problem will be lack of concentration, the lack of privacy, the noise; that will all affect the level of education.
Many students migrated back to their hometowns. Some 80 percent of the intelligentsia of Haiti were in Port-au-Prince and cannot go to school. In a way, educational life is paralyzed in Haiti.
OSV: Can you tell us about your recent meeting in Miami with Vice President Joe Biden?
Father Jean-Mary: He came down to meet with community leaders to reiterate the commitment of the U.S. government. The main concerns in the meeting was what kind of rights the diaspora will have in reconstruction, because we have seating but no voting right in the commission for rebuilding Haiti.
OSV: How are children there doing?
Father Jean-Mary: They are very afraid. They are very traumatized and keep crying; that is a sign of depression or fear. They are frustrated sleeping outside in the heat and rain. I had the experience of sleeping outdoors at one of the camps and when it rained you see women standing for five hours getting wet.
OSV: Do you see any signs of hope?
Father Jean-Mary: The faith of the people is the first sign of hope. I was at a parish doing the Stations of the Cross in the rain, and the people continued to pray and kneel even as the water was flowing to their knees. And you see the smiles, the children laughing and people making jokes about the aftershocks. Another sign of hope was the dignity of the people, and the doctors commented on that. We hear the words, merci — thank you — always a good sign of hope, because when you can be grateful, it is a sign of strength.
OSV: Can you tell us about the state of the clergy and religious in Haiti now?
Father Jean-Mary: They are very traumatized. We were at Mass with two of them, and somebody made a noise and the priest jumped from his chair and started to run. They are very depressed and concerned about Haiti, worried when the churches are going to be rebuilt. Some have lost their appetite; some are disoriented and thinking deeply about the situation and the uncertainty.
OSV: What about your efforts to lend priest-supply support to Haiti?
Father Jean-Mary: We are the only diocese that has a master plan [to assist Haiti], and Miami has always been a gateway when most tragedies have happened in Haiti. Our short-term plan is that we go every three weeks with the help of medical volunteers, and with donations we are renting housing and security for them. Everybody is talking about the physical reconstruction, but there is extensive spiritual and emotional reconstruction which is vital. We see ourselves as doctors of souls. You can provide counseling for the people, but the first thing they ask will be, “Is there a chapel here?” The faith of the people is what will bring ultimate healing.
Sidebar: Generosity of the faithful
Father Reginald Jean-Mary foresees a long rebuilding process in Haiti that involves not just handing out medical supplies and food, but investing in substantial programs such as new medical facilities and vocational schools that will give people the tools to improve their lives.
He told Our Sunday Visitor he is grateful for the generosity of the American Catholic community toward Haiti so far.
“Don’t get dispirited with us, and continue praying for us,” he said.
--Tom Tracy writes from Florida.