People displaced by the 2010 earthquake sleep inside the damaged St. Ann’s Church in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A Canadian delegation led by CCCB president Archbishop Richard Smith recently returned from Haiti. Smith said the group saw some of the fruits of the $20 million raised for Haitian relief by Canadian Catholics. CNS photo/Swoan Parker, Reuters

Catholics have made a difference in Haiti

  • January 4, 2012

OTTAWA - After a solidarity mission to Haiti Dec. 15-21, Archbishop Richard Smith came away with a deep appreciation of the work Canadian Catholics are funding to help the poor through a range of Caritas partners.

“What I saw there was the Gospel in action, lives being changed,” said the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) president.

Smith also came away struck with the need for a long-term commitment to help renew the country devastated by a catastrophic earthquake two years ago.

“What Haiti needs is not just clean up from the earthquake,” he said. “Haiti needs a complete societal healing. I think things are starting to shift now.”

Accompanying Smith on the solidarity trip was CCCB vice president Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher and assistant general secretary Bede Hubbard, Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace executive director Michael Casey, D&P Latin America and Caribbean programs officer Normand Comte and D&P communications officer François Gloutnay. During their mission, the group viewed some of the projects being funded by the more than $20 million in post-earthquake donations from Canadian Catholics.

“You can’t help but notice the lack of any significant political, societal or industrial infrastructure,” Smith said. “Apart from the external societal rebuilding, what’s really at the heart is the internal rebuilding of the person that has to happen. Any personal healing, this too, is going to take a long time.”

Smith noted Haiti’s problems began long before the January 2010 quake levelled large swaths of the island nation. He spoke of crushing poverty that’s “impossible to describe.”  

Smith pointed out D&P had been working in Haiti through its partners for many years prior to the earthquake. Since then, it has established a small office in Port-au-Prince to be close to the action.

D&P is operating on “three axes,” the archbishop said. The first axis is reconstruction after the earthquake; the second is developing food security to help Haitians feed themselves and grow food for market; and the third is shoring up human rights.

“When you’re there, you see that that whole thing has to be treated as a continuum,” he said.

“Development and Peace through its partners is trying to address the whole range of issues to bring renewal and hope to the people there.”

Smith found himself deeply moved by the experience that took the delegates to urban and rural parts of Haiti.

“What also stood out for me was the resilience of the people, the determination of some of the leaders we met to turn things around, to be with their people and help their people,” he said. “They truly do believe that it can be done. They’re not under any illusions it will be done quickly, but taking the step-by-step approach.”

In the capital Port-au-Prince the group participated in a Eucharist in the so-called “tent cathedral” created after the earthquake destroyed its historic church building, killing the archbishop. Smith noted that 300 seminarians are also continuing their studies in tents. Bishops conferences in North America are looking at ways to help the Church in Haiti rebuild its cathedral and seminaries, he said.

Smith was also struck by how many Haitians attend Mass.

“Even with the little they have, they come in their Sunday best,” he said, noting how Haitians “really dress up, really honouring God, placing Him at the centre of everything.”

“What those people were offering up were lives of real misery, suffering and poverty, but at the same time, a sense of joy,” he said, describing a “mixture of a suffering etched on their faces and also of a readiness to express joy and respond to a summons to hope.”

Smith recalled a visit with Fanm Deside, an organization helping women fleeing violence in the Jacamel area, and being struck by the fact the women running it were all members of their local parish, motivated by faith to make a difference in other peoples’ lives.

“Faith is lived there, it’s alive there, as a summons to place their lives in the hands of God and a summons to reach out to one another in solidarity,” he said.

Everywhere they went, people were grateful for both the support they receive from D&P but also for the solidarity shown by the presence of the two archbishops, Smith said.

“Our intention was to be a visible sign of the solidarity there felt by all the bishops of Canada and the Catholics of Canada with the suffering of Haiti. They understood that and truly did appreciate it.”

Travel in Haiti was difficult, often over potholed roads. In the mountainous areas, it was sometimes hard to tell where the road was, he said. One trip took them to a forested area where a food security project is helping people learn how to cultivate saplings for growing fruit trees both for their own use and for bringing fruit to market. The people were also being taught farming techniques such as building of retention walls and collaborative techniques to build stable terraces to protect hillside farmland against erosion.

In the forest area, the women knew the delegation was coming.  

“Even there in the midst of the forest, they all dressed up in their Sunday best, they created archways out of palm trees, put painted nice rocks on pathways,” he said. “Oh, our hearts were in our throats when we saw this beautiful gesture made from next to nothing, wanting to extend hospitality and welcome to guests.”

Smith noted that some NGOs and charities are beginning to leave Haiti, when signs of the earthquake’s devastation remain everywhere. Progress is hard to see for someone like himself with no “before and after” perspective, since 600,000 people still live in tents, he said.

But there are signs of progress, as originally one million people were in tents.

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