Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Episcopal Church in Haiti: coping with tragedy and violence

The Presiding Bishop of TEC, Bishop Katherine Jefforts Schori, visiting Haiti in 2008

Patrick Comerford

The news from Haiti today is distressing and deeply saddening. This is on e of the poorest countries in the world and it is a country that has suffered under brutal regimes, destabilised by endemic violence, been robbed by corrupt politicians, been neglected by the world, and that is beaten regularly by tornadoes and hurricanes.

Tens if not hundreds of thousands of people may have been killed, and the death toll really shows that death is the leveller, for among those who are dead are senior politicians, the UN representative in Haiti, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop.

The news came as I was preparing next Sunday’s liturgy and sermon, based on the story of the Wedding Feast of Cana. In my search for images I came across a mural of the Wedding at Cana (left) from the Episcopal Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti.

The Diocese of Haiti is one of the 12 overseas dioceses of The Episcopal Church (TEC) and a diocese in Province II of The Episcopal Church (TEC). The Episcopal or Anglican Bishop of Haiti is the Right Revd Jean Zache Duracin. But the Episcopal Church of Haiti is also the largest diocese in TEC.

The Episcopal Diocese of Haiti, or Eglise Episcopale d’Haiti covers the whole country, and Holy Trinity Cathedral is in central Port au Prince. The Diocese of Haiti has nearly 180,000 parishioners in about 100 congregations, missions, and preaching stations, but has less than 30 priests currently serving the diocese.

The US agency, Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD), has worked in partnership with the Diocese of Haiti, but the Church faces many challenges, including a lack of clergy and the need for better management practices. The Diocese of Haiti has companion links with eight TEC dioceses: Colorado, East Tennessee, Lexington, Maine, Milwaukee, Quincy, South Carolina and Upper South Carolina,

Ms Jeannie Randall, who recently jut returned to the US from Haiti after working with a medical mission from Saint Thomas Episcopal Church in Huntsville. She said yesterday she hoped the devastation caused by the earthquake will finally direct resources to a country that has struggled too long.

“Ultimately because of this disaster they may come out better because the world's attention will be drawn to them, and obviously all nations will have to band together to provide the funds,” she said.

A church in the midst of violence

The Episcopal Church in Haiti runs 100 primary schools, 15 secondary schools and a school for disabled students, as well as vocational and agricultural training efforts, a university and a seminary.

During a visit to the US three years ago, Bishop Jean Zache Duracin described the epidemic of murders and kidnappings that Haitians have endured, and how the “population is terrorised by armed gangs,” with much of the capital of Port au-Prince under the control of armed gangs.

In the midst of this recurring and worsening violence, Bishop Duracin said, there has been no socio-economic progress in Haiti and there is “endemic” weakness in the national infrastructure. The per capita income is $440 and unemployment runs at 80 per cent. More than 55 per cent of the population is illiterate, 42 per cent of children younger than five are malnourished, and there is only one doctor for every 10,000 people, according to Bishop Duracin.

Haiti does not have enough schools, but the bishop said, but he said his Church tries to fill that gap, with some of the best schools in the country.

“Water is a luxury rather than a basic necessity,” he said, adding that much of the disease in the country is water-borne.

With one per cent of the population controlling half of the nation’s wealth, he said Haiti and its eight million people needed political stability, forgiveness of its external debt and massive investment in its infrastructure and in job creation, along with a “massive redistribution of wealth and services.”

For the past five or six years, the Episcopal Church in Haiti has been victimised, with priests being shot, their vehicles stolen and becoming the victims of crimes. One priest’s life was spared only because his assailant ran out of bullets.

But the diocese has continued its work ecumenically. The new Desmond Tutu Centre for Reconciliation and Peace has been a place where different traditions and denominations can gather “to see if the churches together can do something to make peace among the populations of Haiti,” the bishop said.

Early origins

The Diocese of Haiti was founded in 1861 when the Revd James Theodore Holly, one of the first African-American priests in the Episcopal Church – he was ordained in 1856 at age 27 – left New Haven, Connecticut, for Haiti with 100 emigrants.

Bishop Holly, who was born in 1829 in Washington, DC, was the descendent of freed slaves and Irish immigrants. His great-grandfather, James Theodore Holly, married the daughter of an Irish Catholic called Butler. As a child, the future Bishop Holly was baptised and raised a Roman Catholic but gradually he moved away from the Catholic Church. He left the Roman Catholic Church over a dispute about ordaining local black clergy and joined the Episcopal Church in 1852.

He was ordained at the age of 27, was the Rector of Saint Luke’s Church, New Haven, Connecticut and was one of the founders of the Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting the Extension of the Church Among Coloured People (a forerunner of UBE) in 1856. This group challenged the Church to take a position against slavery at the General Convention.

In 1861 he left the US with his family and 101 black emigrants to settle in Haiti – the world’s first black republic – to establish an Episcopal mission. In July 1863, Holly organised Holy Trinity Church in Port-au-Prince, and despite personal, family tragedies he successfully established schools, built churches, trained young priests and started congregations and rural medical programmes.

The original mission prospered to the point where a resident bishop was needed. On 8 November 1874, he was consecrated a bishop in Grace Church, New York, not by the mainstream Episcopal Church, which refused to ordain a black missionary bishop, but by the American Church Missionary Society, an Evangelical Episcopal branch of the Church, and was named Bishop of the Anglican Orthodox Episcopal Church of Haiti.

The two major components of Holly’s vision were that the Church be indigenous and that it serve the needs of the whole person. He later attended the Lambeth Convention as a bishop, and was also given charge of the Episcopal Church in the Dominican Republic from 1897 to 1911. He died in Haiti on 13 March 1911

In 1913, acting on a petition from the Haitian clergy, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church accepted the Church in Haiti as a Missionary District.

Holy Trinity Cathedral was built in the 1920s – the cornerstone was laid in 1924, and the cathedral was dedicated in 1929. The murals and sculptured bricks were added in the early 1950s.

The website of the Diocese of Haiti: www.egliseepiscopaledhaiti.org/

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