Saturday, 6 March 2010

Focus on Haiti

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

Patrick Comerford
looks at the
disaster facing
the Episcopal
Church in
Haiti and
the hopes
it has
for Easter


The death toll in Haiti continues to rise and could pass 230,000. The Church of Ireland responded rapidly through the Bishops’ Appeal Fund, additional street collections by the two “Black Santas” of the Church of Ireland – in Belfast and the Dublin – and special collections in parishes and dioceses,

However, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, media reports of Church activity in Haiti were dominated by the news of American Baptists who were accused of child-kidnapping, and the comments of the tele-evangelist, Pat Robertson, who told his viewers that Haitians need to have a “great turning to God.”

Robertson claimed the earthquake had hit the country because Haiti has been “cursed by one thing after another” since Haitians “swore a pact to the devil … ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another,” Robertson said.

The victims of the earthquake included the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Port au Prince, Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot. But little attention has been paid to the role of the Churches in helping Haitians cope with the disaster, or to the strong presence of Churches in Haiti.

Strong Anglican presence

About 80 per cent of Haiti’s population is Roman Catholic, but the Anglican or Episcopalian presence is impressive and influential. Episcopalians in Haiti include 100,000 to 150,000 members in 168 congregations, missions and preaching stations. There are 37 active clergy, most of them serving multiple congregations in urban and rural areas.

Although there are 110 dioceses in The Episcopal Church (TEC), the Diocese of Haiti has the largest membership, far surpassing even the Diocese of Texas, with about 80,000 members. Until the earthquake in January, the challenges facing the diocese included the shortage of clergy and the need for better management practices.

The Diocese of Haiti, or Eglise Episcopale d’Haiti, is one of the 12 overseas dioceses of TEC, and a diocese in Province II of TEC. The Presiding Bishop of TEC, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, recently conceded that while the Diocese of Haiti is the most populous diocese in TEC, few Episcopalians were aware of it until the earthquake. Asked how many members of her church know about the Diocese of Haiti and its large number of Episcopalians, she said: “Actually, too few.”

Haiti’s government estimates the death toll is about 230,000 people, and Haitians are still struggling to meet basic needs, while caring for or mourning loved ones pulled from the rubble. Rebuilding the country – and the diocese – is likely take a decade or longer, according to Bishop Jefferts Schori, who paid a pastoral visit to Haiti recently. Not one diocesan building in the capital, Port-au-Prince, is usable. The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity and the bishop’s residence were destroyed, although Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin survived.

Mission and service

Until the earthquake, the diocese was running primary schools, and many missions had medical facilities. The ministry of the Diocese of Haiti included:

● 254 schools with more than 80,000 pupils and students from pre-school to university level, including a school for children with disabilities, a trade school, a music school, a two-year business school, a nursing school, a seminary and a university;

● medical clinics including Hôpital Sainte Croix in Léogâne, which was at the epicentre of the earthquake;

● a philharmonic orchestra and children’s choir based at the cathedral;

● agricultural, reforestation and development projects and micro-financing efforts;

● peace and reconciliation work, including the Desmond Tutu Centre for Reconciliation and Peace and non-violence training.



In Port-au-Prince, the clergy of Holy Trinity Cathedral ran a programme that included an active parish council, choirs, scouts and associations for young people, men, women and children.

Three members of the community of Anglican nuns, the Sisters of Saint Margaret, were missing in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake. They were living in a convent on the grounds of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, and were running a home for elderly people, working among poor people throughout the diocese, and were involved in training seminarians and in pastoral work.

Haitian art in the cathedral

Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, which has been destroyed totally, was built in the 1920s. It was a simple, unimposing, grey stone structure, but inside it was breath-taking.

The murals in the apse and transepts were painted in the early 1950s under the direction of DeWitt Peters and Selden Rodman of Centre d’Art, Port-au-Prince. The murals depicted Biblical and church stories from the perspective of Haitian artists.

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

The cultural importance of these paintings – in the classic Haitian “primitive” style – was recognised when the cathedral was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The school and the diocese also played 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.

Poverty and violence

Haiti is the poorest and least-developed country in the western hemisphere. More than half of its people were living on less than $1 a day, and 80% were living on less than $2 per day. One-third of the children are malnourished and 500,000 cannot go to school. Haiti has suffered under brutal regimes, been destabilised by endemic violence, robbed by corrupt politicians, neglected by the world, and has been beaten regularly by tornadoes and hurricanes.

“Water is a luxury rather than a basic necessity,” he said.

Bishop Duracin recently described the epidemic of murders and kidnappings in Haiti and how the “population is terrorised by armed gangs.” The Episcopal Church in Haiti has been victimised, with priests being shot, their vehicles stolen and becoming the victims of crimes.

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, along with a “massive redistribution of wealth and services.”

Early mission origins

The Diocese of Haiti was planning to mark its 150th anniversary next year. It began as a mission church in 1861 and was founded by the Revd James Theodore Holly, one of the first black priests in the Episcopal Church.

Bishop Holly was the descendent of freed slaves and Irish immigrants – his great-grandfather, James Theodore Holly, married the daughter of an Irish Roman Catholic called Butler. The future bishop was baptised and raised a Roman Catholic but left the Church of his birth in a dispute about ordaining local black clergy and joined the Episcopal Church in 1852. He was ordained at 27, became the Rector of Saint Luke’s in New Haven, Connecticut, and in 1856 was one of the founders of a pressure group challenging the Church to take a stand against slavery.

In 1861, he left New Haven with his family and 101 black emigrants to settle in Haiti – the world’s first black republic – and to establish an Episcopal mission. Despite personal and family tragedies, he established schools, built churches, trained young priests and started congregations and rural medical programmes.

Holy Trinity Parish in Port-au-Prince was established on Pentecost Day, 25 May 1863, the first Diocesan Synod met in 1864, and what was known at first as the Haitian Apostolic Orthodox Church was recognised as a member of the Anglican Communion in 1870.

The Diocese of Haiti formally joined the Episcopal Church in 1875. A year earlier, Holly was consecrated bishop in Grace Church, New York, and attended later Lambeth Conferences. He died in Haiti 100 years ago on 13 March 1911. In 1913, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church accepted the Church in Haiti as a Missionary District.

A diocese responds

After the quake, Bishop Duracin and the Diocese of Haiti immediately set up a camp in Port-au-Prince “the size of a football field” where destitute and injured people could find refuge.

The Diocesan Development Office had already trained a network of 28 community development workers for disaster management, and they carried out initial needs assessments for their own communities.

Two weeks after the quake, the diocese and Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD) were helping over 25,000 survivors in 23 camps, ranging in size from a few hundred people to around 8,000. In addition, sanitation and clean water facilities were built for many of the camps.

Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin … “looking forward to a celebration of Easter”

“We are desperate but strong in faith,” Bishop Duracin said after the earthquake, which has become known as “La Catastrophe.” He said the course of history has changed for Haiti.

“I look at this as a baptism,” he said in a reflection written for the first Sunday of Lent. Bishop Duracin also spoke of the need for faith, prayer and renewal in the midst of devastation.

“There is not a single family that did not lose a close friend or member: Mothers, fathers, siblings, in some cases entire families disappeared,” he said. “As for resources, we have next to nothing. The wreckage is beyond imagination. However, this situation delivers us into faith. I look at this as a baptism. We who are still alive have had the blessing of survival, but in many ways we have died to the ways of the past. We have the opportunity to rise up and start anew. In this moment of grief and mourning, life must continue.”

“That we were struck by this tragedy does not mean God is not with us. He is here. We must always remember that God lives in this world. There is pain, but there is also joy. He gives us assurance not of the life that ends, but the life that is eternal.”

And, he said the, Church in his diocese is “looking forward to a celebration of Easter.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. Dublin.

This essay was first published as a centre-page feature (pages 8-9) in the
Church of Ireland Gazette on 5 March 2010.