In Haiti, O’Malley offers aid, healing

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / March 3, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Cardinal Sean O’Malley picked his way through the ruins of the Notre Dame Cathedral here, his sandaled feet carefully negotiating concrete rubble and sharp splinters of wood.

Around him lay the bones of the 125-year-old church whose soaring, butter-yellow nave is now open to the sky. More than 30 people were killed when it collapsed in the Jan. 12 earthquake; across the street, the archbishop was thrown headlong from a balcony to his death.

O’Malley, the highest-ranking US church leader to visit Haiti since the disaster, bowed his head and prayed.

“Give the people the strength, wisdom, and courage to rebuild their community and their church,’’ O’Malley said.

O’Malley’s visit was a gesture of condolence and a whirlwind fact-finding mission to help decide how to distribute some $35 million in aid from a special collection of US Catholic churches, including $2 million from the Boston Archdiocese. He and several other US bishops will also help sketch out a plan for rebuilding Haitian Catholic institutions and ministries, which lost dozens of churches and almost 70 priests, nuns, and seminarians in the quake.

O’Malley was characteristically quiet as the delegation from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops toured the devastation in and around the nation’s capital yesterday. They rode in a sport utility vehicle from the local nunciature, followed by an entourage of reporters and people affiliated with the church, weaving their way through traffic with the help of a police escort.

The delegation visited the toppled National Palace, a model Catholic school, the archbishop’s grave, and a Catholic hospital, St. Francois de Sales. O’Malley blessed children there, gently asking their names in Haitian Creole, a language he has studied intensively since coming to Boston. He chuckled when a little dog in a schoolyard nosed the hem of his brown habit.

Few people recognized O’Malley, who stands out in Boston with his snowy beard and Franciscan robes, but people on the street could see that a group of church leaders - probably foreign, and probably important - had come, and heads turned as they passed by.

Marise Joseph, 26, was sitting on a bench under a tent at St. Francois de Sales as O’Malley passed, an aid worker explaining to him how the hospital lost 85 percent of its buildings, yet was still caring for 90 inpatients and hundreds of outpatients a day.

Joseph, a factory worker, had a high fever and had traveled more than an hour on one of the gaily colored local buses, called “tap-taps,’’ to the hospital, where she had been waiting for four hours to see a doctor. Her house had been destroyed in the earthquake, and so was her church. But the congregation has met every Sunday for services in the courtyard, which she said “makes me forget’’ some of her suffering.

The delegation’s visit, she said, “shows that the Catholic Church overseas . . . cares about people here.’’

Some were not so impressed. Marie Celestin, 20, lay on a hospital bed in a tent, two large metal screws holding her hips together, when O'Malley stopped by her side to give her wooden rosary beads and blessed her. As he passed by, she shrugged: With a wry smile, she said. After he passed by, she said with a wry smile that she was a Baptist, and his murmured "le pere, le fils et le saint esprit" meant little to her. But she said she prayed to God to make the agonizing pain go away, and she clutched the beads anyway.

The delegation rode through dusty city roads teeming with people and lined with piles of garbage and burgeoning tent cities. Amid rubble, vendors sold plantains, charcoal, and water, people carried bags of rice, children washed themselves.

Joseph Lafontant, the auxiliary bishop of Port-au-Prince, was ordained in the national cathedral, which he said regularly drew 2,500 to 3,000 to Sunday Mass and called its collapse “a nail through my heart.’’ He mourned the loss of Archbishop Joseph Serge Moit, colleague of 30 years, who “loved the poorest of the poor.’’ But he was heartened to see the US bishops.

“The church,’’ he said, “is one.’’

Underscoring the importance of the church and its schools, hospitals, and charitable groups in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation - whose government was woefully disorganized and unable to meet the basic needs of citizens even before the earthquake - President Rene Preval and his wife, Elizabeth, dined with the US bishops’ delegation on Monday night to discuss their country’s needs.

They were particularly concerned about reopening the schools. About half of Haitian children attend primary school, according to UNICEF, and Catholic schools provide some of the best free education here. The government has ordered all schools closed since the earthquake.

Elizabeth Preval presented them with pictures drawn by Haitian children - “most of them were houses,’’ O’Malley said - and told him about her visits with Haitian children recovering from injuries in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic.

“A lot of the children said to her, ‘Promise me we can go to school,’ ’’ O’Malley said.

The rebuilding process that will allow that to happen will be long and difficult, something the Boston cardinal knows firsthand. In his first job as a bishop, on St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, his own house was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo. The island had no clean water for six months, he said, and for days he and his parishioners lived on coconut milk.

“I think that the experiences that I have had in some ways prepare you to be able to contribute at a moment like this,’’ he said.

O’Malley has long harbored a special interest in Haiti. He made a point of learning Haitian Creole when he became archbishop in Boston, which has the third-largest Haitian Catholic community in the US, after New York and Miami.

“They’re an extraordinary people,’’ he said. “The Haitians have an energy and joy about them, even in the most adverse circumstances.’’

His language skills allowed him to celebrate a Mass in Haitian Creole in the Petionville house of the Filles de Marie, or Daughters of Mary, just after dawn yesterday. The Mass was held in a small whitewashed brick room with arched windows, open to a balcony behind.

It was a haven of quiet from the noise and dust rising from the streets outside, but the sisters were not spared agonizing losses in the earthquake. Fifteen died when their residence in nearby Bel Air collapsed; 11 are recovering from serious injuries in the Dominican Republic. The schools and universities where most of them taught were severely damaged or destroyed; looters made off with money and clothes from the ruins of their convent.

“I think they’re still in shock,’’ O’Malley said.

The sisters, most of them elderly, sat quietly on wooden benches as O’Malley and the other bishops said the Mass, heads bowed.

At one point, the auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn, Guy Sansaricq, the only Haitian-American bishop in the United States and a member of the delegation, prayed to God to give the sisters “strength to continue to do the work of God’’ in the community.

Sister Lucie Sanon, 50, who lost friends she entered the order with 23 years ago, gently challenged him in a quiet moment later.

“We can’t, because we are so hurt,’’ she said.