A learning oasis buoyed by a convert's vision

Amid Haiti’s devastation, Patrick Moynihan presses on

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / February 9, 2010

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SANTO, Haiti - A tall metal gate is opened, and Patrick Moynihan bursts into the grounds of the Louverture Cleary School on the back of a tinny, exhaust-belching motorcycle that acts as a taxi on the congested, chaotic streets.

Moynihan, a fast-talking whirlwind of frenetic motion, has little time for pleasantries. Louverture Cleary, a private Catholic boarding school that he runs, continues its mission amid the devastation that reigns outside the damaged walls.

The government has ordered all public schools closed in Haiti, but Moynihan is pressing on.

“The preservation of culture is the preservation of humanity,’’ says Moynihan, whose brother, Bank of America chief executive Brian Moynihan of Wellesley, Mass., is an important benefactor of the school and was his inspiration in going to Haiti in the first place.

“There’s very much a sense of purpose here, especially now,’’ said Elissa Kergosien, 23, of Bay St. Louis, Miss., one of nine volunteer teachers from the United States.

That sense of purpose took practical form in 1987, when the school was established with critical support from a parish and donors in Providence, where the Moynihan brothers graduated from Brown University. Brian was one of the Louverture school’s early directors.

Nine years later, after a religious conversion, Patrick Moynihan was steered here by his brother, who suggested that Patrick visit the school.

“God put a question in my mind,’’ said Patrick Moynihan, a former successful commodities trader who last lived in Salem, S.C. After that visit, Moynihan became hooked on a project that has profoundly changed his life.

Now, as the school’s director, he thinks big, hopes big, and is implementing a vision of a service-oriented school that grooms the leaders of this beleaguered country. It is a vision that combines the ideals of a missionary with the bottom line of a Wall Street trader.

“We have to act like we’re not going to disappear tomorrow, but look ahead 200 years from now,’’ Moynihan says of Haiti. “We can’t forget the dead, but their sacrifice will be honored by what we do moving forward.’’

The school’s $750,000 budget benefits from 1,000 donors, including Brian Moynihan, who once contributed $150,000 in Bank of America shares to keep Louverture Cleary afloat.

Brian Moynihan, whom Patrick says imbued him with the courage to tackle this task, is proud of his brother’s work.

“Patrick has so many gifts and talents,’’ Brian said in an e-mail sent through a spokesman. “I am amazed at what he has accomplished by applying them to make a difference in a very real way to help people in Haiti.

“He and others like him are doing so much, not just now, while the world is stepping up to help, but every day over many years, and they are touching so many lives.’’

While most children in Haiti are struggling with survival instead of English classes, many of Louverture Cleary’s 350 disadvantaged pupils have returned to this academic oasis, where outdoor classes are cooled by tropical breezes and students toss basketballs at a hoop hung on a mango tree.

Tuition is free, admission is competitive, and the school offers a chance none of these children would have otherwise enjoyed: to escape Haiti’s grinding poverty. All the graduates are qualified to advance to university studies, Moynihan said.

James Coqmard Philippe, a tall 18-year-old, is grateful. If not for the school, Philippe said, he probably would be working in a factory, making just enough money to survive. Instead, he is studying languages and computer science.

“This is the best education, I think, that we can get in a country like Haiti,’’ Philippe says.

Compared with the many collapsed buildings in Santo, a crowded suburb of Port-au-Prince, the school compound suffered only marginal damage. A few walls have toppled, support columns are weakened, and narrow cracks have opened on some of the buildings on its lush, shaded campus.

The quake terrorized the students, boys and girls from sixth to 12th grades, who ran screaming to the central courtyard where many of their assemblies are held. But the human toll was startlingly small: seven pupils suffered minor injuries.

After the Jan. 12 quake, the students slept on foam mattresses on the compound’s soccer field. Many of them retreated to their homes or what was left of them in the ensuing days. But 60 pupils never left the school, more than half of the total have returned, and the number grows by the day.

In a country where most people remain afraid to venture into buildings, the students have returned to their dormitories, which engineers have deemed safe. They eat well, including beef from cows slaughtered on site.

And they attend classes in French, English, Spanish, and religion, informal offerings described by teachers as a para-curriculum while the country’s schools remain shuttered.

In one class - a Spanish session taught by Betsy Bowman, a volunteer teacher from Somerville, Mass. - the 10th-graders are engaged, eager, and bubbling with answers for senora, their teacher. Dust blows about the floor, a dog dozes beneath the blackboard, and palm trees rock gently outside the second-floor room.

Amid the despair and grief that cloak Haiti, the scene at Louverture Cleary is colored by smiles, laughter, learning, and joy.

A school motto is never far from the consciousness of the pupils. Written on a prominent wall in Creole, above the courtyard where the students congregated in fear, the motto makes a nonnegotiable statement.

“We’re ready to rebuild Haiti. Are you?’’ the question asks. The challenge predates the earthquake.

“Some people say I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,’’ said Bowman, who threw herself to the floor when the quake hit. “But I think I was in the right place at the right time.’’

As he considers the yawning chasm of need, Patrick Moynihan says there’s no better place to be. He has decided to stay permanently.

It’s a decision, Moynihan said, that shows many of his brother’s fingerprints.

“My brother taught me this: It doesn’t matter how good a life you have. It doesn’t matter, as long as you treat someone better than you are treated yourself,’’ Moynihan said.

“That’s why I’m in Haiti.’’

Todd Wallack of the Globe staff contributed to this report.