By Most Rev. Richard W. Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Back to School!

Our last visit of our last day was to a school recently constructed with the assistance of Development and Peace. It is run by the Haitian Province of the Missionaries of the Immaculate Conception, a religious congregation founded by Mother Delia Tetreault of the province of Quebec. The former school operated here by this community was destroyed by the earthquake, and now it is completely rebuilt. Yet another sign of hope. The Sister Provincial, together with two of her sisters, were obviously very proud and excited as they showed us around this new Catholic girls' school, which provides education to nine hundred children aged six to eighteen. They used the occasion of the visit to present D&P with a plaque expressing the gratitude of the congregation and the students for this beautiful new school.

The day had begun with a visit from the President of the Episcopal Conference of Haiti, Most Reverend Chibly Langlois. This gave both Archbishop Durocher and I the chance to speak with him about the priorities of the Haitian Bishops as regards the ecclesial reconstruction that needs to occur. Then our delegation made a whirlwind visit to officials of the Canadian International Development Agency stationed in Haiti. Since their offices are housed in the Canadian embassy to Haiti, this gave us the opportunity to greet briefly our Canadian ambassador. From there we stopped into an organization that offers formation for a whole network of community radio stations operating throughout Haiti, including a few associated with the local Church. I hadn't realized the importance of such radio stations until I came here. Since more than fifty percent of the population is illiterate and too poor to own televisions, this is for many their sole source of information for what is happening in the community, what to do in the case of emergencies and so on. Our final visit before proceeding to the school was to the offices of the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Haitian Episcopal Conference. We spoke there of their priorities and work and of our desire that the presence and work of D&P and its partners be a support to them.

Tomorrow we visit with the Apostolic Nuncio to Haiti and then make our way to the airport. Time will be very tight tomorrow, so this is my last blog post from Haiti.

Perhaps what has remained most strongly with me is my memory of a woman whom we met earlier in the week during our visit to MPP. She had arrived at their centre following the earthquake. So traumatized was she by that event, on top of all her other problems, that she snapped and was in need of professional psychological assistance. God knows - I'm afraid I would have just as easily lost it in the midst of this terrible reality. By the time we met her, however, she was smiling and laughing. Able to laugh. Because of the love and attention of the community, and the professional help that they were able to provide for her, she is now well and ... able to laugh. This is my prayer for the people of Haiti - that they will find a renewal and restoration that brings them joy.

The earthquake of which we are all aware is but an external sign of the interior tremors that have been shaking the people of Haiti for generations. The crushing weight of absolute poverty has left countless persons without a sense of their personal worth and dignity. The work of D&P and its partners is obviously very modest in comparison to the overwhelming needs here. Yet the renewal and hope that they bring to the people they assist is an indication of the personal reconstruction that our Lord wills for each and everyone of his people here in this country. As Christmas announces God's accomplishment of the impossible, let us not fail to pray that what is truly humanly impossible - the restoration of the Haitian people and society - will by the grace of God and the agency of people dedicated to the poor become a reality.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Tent Cathedral and a Forest Nursery

A once magnificent building that now stands in ruins. Next to it a number of tents under which the people now gather to celebrate the Eucharist. This is what I discovered when I celebrated Mass at the "cathedral" on Sunday at the invitation of the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Most Reverend Guire Poulard. The cathedral was totally destroyed by the earthquake, as were adjacent Caritas and diocesan offices. The Archbishop most graciously invited me to preside at the Mass with his people, during which Archbishop Durocher preached a wonderful homily on the virtue of hope.

The building is in ruins but the Church is alive - it is alive in the resilient hearts of the people. Their suffering -- who can imagine the depth of it? - is etched on their faces, but they continue to lift up their lives to the Lord, whom they know to be near, especially in the Eucharist.

Our Eucharistic Lord calls us to be the agents of this presence to others. The Eucharist, which draws us into the self-offering of Christ himself, sends us forth to offer our lives for those in need. Celebrating the Mass in the very midst of incredible hardship brought this home to me very strongly.

Following our celebration we traveled over the mountains to Jacmel, where Development and Peace has been partnered for a long time with an organization founded in 1989 by Canadian religious sisters, Les Soeurs du Bon Conseil, to help women escape violence.
Called Famn Deside (Femmes Decidees), this is a group of women who have organized themselves to resist violence, and to educate both women and men as to the rights of women not to be violated, to be educated, and to be honoured. It began under the Sisters' direction with thirteen women, and now counts more than 800 members. We met with a group of them who welcomed us warmly. Very moving were their stories of pain and courage, especially now as they have to struggle against an increase in violence in the camps following the earthquake. Due to their efforts the violence in areas where they make themselves present is slowly diminishing. When we met afterward with the Vicar General of the Diocese of Jacmel, he shared with us how much the work of this organization is appreciated and supported by the local Church.

The next morning we visited some of their projects. Deep into the forest we went. En route we visited an edifice being constructed as a shelter for women and their children fleeing violence, and I was honoured to bless it at their request. From there we continued into the countryside, and to say that we went "off the beaten track" would be a huge understatement. It was the first time I've driven into a river in order to cross it. When we arrived at a small forest village, we proceeded into the bush on foot for quite some distance to an area where women have fashioned a nursery for the cultivation of tree seedlings, which are then transplanted to produce food for personal and familial sustenance as well as for the market, and to contribute at the same time to the reforestation of the land.

The women living and working in this area met us very warmly as a group (age range: 19-80) and shared with us the new hope that they have received from the assistance offered by Famn Deside. Many of them were learning to read and write for the first time in their lives, and I will not forget the look of happiness and pride as they told us so.

Equally etched in my memory are the songs of determination and hope that they shared with us, before treating us to a beautiful lunch from their own produce.
After this a three and a half hour ride across the mountains back to the chaos of Port-au-Prince. As I looked at the endless stretches of misery, I kept thinking of the people I had just met, especially their deeply held conviction that they are contributing to the rebuilding of this country in a substantial way by their work. They are right and deserving of our support.