17 January 2010

Earthquake destroys cathedral and unique artistic legacy

The remains of the Episcopal Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Port-au-Prince (Photograph: Philipe Qualo/Mark Harris/Preludium)

Patrick Comerford

The death toll in Haiti continues to rise and could pass 200,000. This morning, at the Sung Eucharist in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, prayers are being said for the people of Haiti ands the collection is going to the Church of Ireland Bishops’ Appeal Fund, which has launched a special appeal for Haiti.

Over the last two days, I have heard that the Episcopal or Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Port-au-Prince and the bishop’s residence have been destroyed by the earthquake. Reports say Bishop Zache Duracin has survived, but the Roman Catholic archbishop has been killed.

The Episcopal Diocese of Haiti is the largest diocese in The Episcopal Church (TEC). There are 180,000 communicants in 98 congregations scattered throughout Haiti, but with only 30 priests. Until last week, most of these missions included primary schools, and many had medical facilities. And, until last week, the five cathedral clergy, under the leadership of Bishop Zache, ran a varied programme of activities, including an active parish council; associations for young people, men, women, and children; choirs; and scouts.

The Convent of the Sisters of Saint Margaret stood in the cathedral grounds. Since 1927, the sisters have helped in the church’s work with women and children. Their work has included Holy Trinity School, Saint Vincent’s School for Handicapped Children, Foyer NĂ²tre Dame for elderly women, and rural work at Maison Saint Paul, Matthieu.

Holy Trinity School, beside the cathedral, was originally founded as a school for girls in 1913. Until last week, there are 1,200 boys and girls at the school. There was also a trade school with 800 students and a music school. The school music programme, which began in 1970, included a philharmonic orchestra and a boys’ choir, with frequent concerts in Salle Sainte Cecile at the school.

Saint Vincent’s School for Handicapped Children, started in 1945, was caring for 1,500 children a month in the school section and in the specialised medical, orthopaedic and neurological clinics. There were surgical facilities one day a week. Music, art, and literature were included along with the academic curriculum. There were boarding places for 200 children.

College Saint Pierre, the church’s secondary school in Port-au-Prince, stood at the south-east corner of the Champs-de-Mars. It opened in 1957 and had 700 students until last week.

The Episcopal Church also ran Holy Cross Hospital in Leogane, which had assumed responsibility for all health care in its region through a network of village health workers, midwives, and mobile clinics. But Leogane was at the epicentre of the earthquake last week.

And so, you can see, the mission of preaching the Good News about Christ and showing God’s love through service to the Haitian was at the heart of the work of the Diocese of Haiti.

Haitian art

Holy Trinity Cathedral before the earthquake (Photograph: Caminante)

Holy Trinity Cathedral was a grey stone structure, simple and unimposing. But inside the church was breath-taking and deeply spiritual. The cathedral was built in the 1920s. The cornerstone was laid in November 1924, and the cathedral was dedicated in January, 1929.

The High Altar and apse murals in Holy Trinity Cathedral, which had been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The murals in the cathedral were painted under the direction of DeWitt Peters and Selden Rodman of Centre d’Art, Port-au-Prince. The murals in the apse were finished in March 1950. The murals in the transepts were completed in April 1951. The Rieger organ, the gift of an American donor, was installed in 1961. They were painted by Haitian artists in the 1950s to depict Biblical and church stories from the perspective of Haitian artists.

The ruins of Holy Trinity Cathedral … with a glimpse of one of the lost murals

These paintings in the classic Haitian “primitive” style made the cathedral a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The school and the diocese have taken an important role in preserving and developing Haiti’s artistic heritage. A museum, across the street from the school, housed a permanent collection of Haitian art. Now that unique artistic heritage appears to have been lost for ever.

The Wedding at Cana … a mural from Holy Trinity Cathedral, Haiti

Missing sisters

Meanwhile, Anglican nuns in Boston are waiting anxiously for news about three of their nuns who were living in of Port-au-Prince.

“We have three sisters in Haiti and we have been trying all night to get through … We hope and pray that they're safe. One fears for the worst. However, we’re just going to have to wait it out,” Sister Adele Marie Ryan, assistant superior of the Sisters of Saint Margaret, said ate last week.

Sister Marie Margaret Fenelon, Sister Marjorie Raphael Wysong and Sister Marie Therese Milien were living in a convent on the grounds of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. The sisters have been running a home for elderly people and worked among poor people throughout the Diocese of Haiti. They were also involved in training seminarians and in pastoral work at two schools the order founded, the Saint Vincent School for the Handicapped and the Holy Trinity School, which are in the same neighbourhood.

Les Soeurs de Ste Marguerite at Holy Trinity Cathedral at work before the earthquake

The Church of Ireland Bishops’ Appeal, the Church’s World Aid and Development Programme, is donating an initial €20,000 towards the emergency relief effort. The funds will be sent through Christian Aid, which has partners working in Haiti.

For some information on Haiti and also Christian Aid’s work in Haiti: http://www.christianaid.ie/whatwedo/the-americas/haiti.aspx Or you can visit the Haiti Earthquake Appeal site to donate directly, or donate directly to the work in Haiti of Episcopal Relief and Development through go to their website. The instructions are easy to follow and the links are easy.

Do keep everyone in Haiti in your prayers.

A Prayer for Haiti (from the Christian Aid website):

Loving God of creation,
at this time of devastation
we hold before you the people of Haiti.

When the damage is unimaginable,
and the suffering seems overwhelming,
remind us that every person affected
is loved, honoured and precious in your sight.

We remember all those who have been hurt;
all who have lost their homes, livelihoods and loved ones.

Work through us to bring healing
to broken and distorted lives,
peace to those who have been thrown into despair,
light to those in darkness,
and hope to those who fear.

We ask this in the name of Jesus
in whom all life and grace is found. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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