Haiti Mission Trip 2014

Parishioners from Mary Queen of Peace seek to make a difference in Haiti

Sheila Stroup, The Times-PicayuneBy Sheila Stroup, The Times-Picayune
Follow on Twitter
on May 09, 2014 at 12:46 PM, updated May 09, 2014 at 6:54 PM

My favorite time of day at St. Benoit is early morning. I wake to the sounds of doves cooing in the courtyard outside the rectory and roosters crowing. I hear villagers calling to each other as they pass on the road, on their way to the fields where they eke out a living harvesting corn and beans.

I get dressed by the light that filters in through the high open windows of the bedroom. We have electricity only when the generator is on or the solar panels give us power. We are 60 miles and 5 1/2 hours up the mountain from Port-au-Prince in southwest Haiti, and it feels like we are in another world.

I walk up the stairs to what is now the roof of the rectory but will one day be the floor of a second story. From this vantage point, the scenery is spectacular. Crop- and tree-covered hills spill down the mountainside in all directions, and there are gravestones planted among the beans and corn. Scattered paths lead to the tiny huts the villagers call home.

One morning when I am on the roof, I see Monsignor Wildor Pierre, the pastor, by himself across the way. He has lifted his hands above his head, and I can tell that he is praying. Up here, so close to the sky, you feel like you can talk directly to God.

I can’t make out his words, but I imagine he is saying, “Thank you for this lovely morning and for sending us our visitors from Mary Queen of Peace.”

Six of us from the Mandeville church’s Haiti Partnership Ministry have come to spend nearly a week in St. Benoit, our sister parish. It is the third visit for ministry leaders Muguet Bolotte and Teresan Sister Marina Aranzabal. For Clay Drewes, Tony Pastorello, Nancy Waguespack and me, it is our first, and we marvel at the sights and sounds. Tony and Clay can’t seem to stop shooting videos and taking pictures.

The children have such big smiles and beautiful faces, and they are always singing. They love school, and the day we give 200 elementary-school students new backpacks — a gift from Mary Queen of Peace parishioners — they are beaming. They hug them to their chests and rewrap them in the plastic bags they came in. When they leave school, they wear them proudly as they march out the door.

Sheila Stroup HaitiMonsignor Wildor Pierre speaks to his parishioners at Our Lady of Fatima Chapel, one of six chapels in far-flung areas of the parish. (Photo by Clay Drewes)

This year, Monsignor Wildor has added middle school in the afternoon. When the elementary schoolchildren head home, 50 seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders file into the classrooms. He has hired new teachers who teach them French and English, math and geography. The native language here is Haitian Creole, a mixture of French and West African languages. French is the language of the educated classes in Haiti.

Monsignor Wildor’s plan is to add 10th, 11th and 12th grades for the next school year. When a member of the mission team suggests it might be better to add just 10th and build from there, he listens closely, but something in his eyes tells me he is determined to add all three grades. This year, students in the village of Dessources must walk two hours to get to the closest high school or else stop going.

Monsignor Wildor is passionate about educating the children. On the blackboard in the kindergarten classroom, someone has written: “Sans l’education on ira nul part.” When I ask him to translate, he says, “Without an education, you aren’t going anywhere.” And the school motto is: “Hard work, intelligence and discipline lead to success.”

His dreams seem lofty in this poverty-stricken country, but when we see all that he has done since the local bishop sent him to St. Benoit in 2009, we realize he not only has dreams, he finds a way to carry them out.

Monsignor Wildor went to seminary in Miami, but he always said that when he became a priest he would come home to Haiti to help his people. When he arrived here, there was a tiny chapel with a leaky tin roof. The villagers walked an hour down the mountain to get water. There was no school for the children, no rectory. But he said, “I will sleep in the sacristy of the church.”

He began to work on the church with the help of the villagers, and they had been making progress when the earthquake hit on Jan. 12, 2010. One night at dinner he tells us, “I lost everything I owned. The earthquake came and took it. The whole roof went down.”

I ask him if that made him lose heart, and his answer surprises me.

“It is OK when I lose everything because I see people with nothing living in the street, and it helps me understand how they feel,” he says.

He prayed to God to help him and bring others to help him. The ministry at Mary Queen of Peace was the answer to his prayer.

After the earthquake, Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond invited parishes in the Archdiocese of New Orleans to partner with a parish in Haiti. Through Catholic Relief Services, Mary Queen of Peace was put in touch with Monsignor Wildor. Working together, the two parishes have done wonders.

St. Benoit now has a pretty little church with a roof that doesn’t leak, and a school that educates more than 300 children. A lunch program feeds them, and the Mary Queen of Peace ministry raised the money for a water well, so the villagers can fill their 5-gallon containers at a distribution area just down the hill from the church instead of walking an hour down the mountain.

Ministry funds help pay teacher salaries and provide scholarships for the most promising students to attend middle school. In a country where the government provides no schools in rural areas and half the children don’t go to school, an education means everything.

Our days in the village are jam-packed. There is a play day for the children complete with a wild group dance led by Monsignor Wildor, a scholastic contest, races, and musical chairs. And there are three-hour Masses filled with music, singing and dancing.

The people welcome us warmly and seem filled with joy and hope. During the Offertory of the Mass, women bring up huge baskets of bananas they carry on their heads. There are bowls of oranges, cherries, mangos and mirlitons. There is corn, cabbage, a sprouting coconut, a little hen. By the end of the collection, the altar is heaped with gifts the rectory staff will turn into meals for us.

We visit the children in their classrooms and have lunch with their teachers. Nancy, who teaches religion to sixth- and seventh-graders at Mary Queen of Peace School, has brought flashcards, books about Haiti, and laminated maps for the school. When the teachers see maps of Haiti written in French, their eyes light up, and they say “Ahhh” in unison. They can’t wait to share them with their students.

One day we travel many miles to Our Lady of Fatima, one of six chapels for parishioners in outlying areas. It is merely a collection of wooden posts with mismatched tarps for a roof, a dirt floor, and walls made out of palm fronds. But the posts are decorated with flowers, and there is a nice breeze. More than 80 people sit on benches in the humble open-air chapel, waiting for Monsignor Wildor, and I think of Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them.”

We also visit Mount Carmel, a parish that has no sister parish in New Orleans. The pastor tells us he had to close the high school because he couldn’t pay the teachers, and the elementary teachers often work without getting paid. It is much like St. Benoit was the first year mission members visited, and Sister Marina wants desperately to find a parish in the New Orleans area willing to form a partnership with Mount Carmel.

“There is so much need here,” she says.

On Saturday, we go to the market where the villagers of Dessources gather to buy, sell and exchange fruits and vegetables, bread and beans, goats, chickens and pigs. On a hillside just before we reach the makeshift booths is a parking lot for the dozens of donkeys who serve as local taxis and pickups.

The market is a wild place, with people shouting, music playing, goats bleating and young men cruising along the unpaved street on motorcycles they use to transport people up and down the mountain. The sun beats down, and the smell of gasoline mingles with the smells of charcoal and food cooking.

Sunday, after Mass, with help from some of the village women, we hand out vitamins to young mothers and give worm medicine to children ages 1 to 5. Sister Marina and Muguet, both fluent in French, explain that the medicine will help the children stay healthy and that they should take only one vitamin pill each day.

I, not being fluent in French, admire babies and hand out blankets and dresses sewn by women in St. Tammany Parish.

Later, we meet with Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to give them the first-aid kits assembled by Max Tepper, a young parishioner at Mary Queen of Peace who is working on becoming an Eagle Scout. Muguet and Sister Marina explain what each item is before handing them out. Chances are the children have never seen a Band-Aid.

Throughout the days, I keep noticing one young woman who is a leader. I hear her singing and playing the bongo drum in church and also in the church courtyard where the children gather to play. I see her making signs that say, “Welcome Mary Queen of Peace,” and watch her lift up little children in her arms.

I learn that Nerlyne Charlotin is 19 and in the eighth grade. She is first in her class, and the students at St. Scholastic Academy in Covington are paying her middle-school tuition.

When Sister Marina and I sit down to talk to her, Nerlyne tells us she loves school and she likes learning French and English. She sings for us — “Love Doesn’t Think Twice,” a Celine Dion song. When I ask how she learned it, she says her English teacher wrote the words on the blackboard and then the students listened to the music on his cell phone.

She tells us she wants to finish high school and go to college in Port-au-Prince. She has an aunt there she can live with. She wants to be a nurse and come home to Dessources to help the people.

“Maybe when I get through nursing school, there will be a hospital here,” she says, smiling. “That would be my dream job.”

Now, the nearest hospital is a bumpy 2 1/2 hour drive down the mountain on an unpaved road, and one of Monsignor Wildor’s dreams is to build a medical clinic in Dessources. It will be eight years before Nerlyne can finish nursing school. I think that gives him time to build a clinic.

Maybe when I get through nursing school, there will be a hospital here. That would be my dream job." -- Nerlyne Charlotin, eighth-grader

During our visit, Monsignor Wildor tells us, “All we can give you is our prayers and our love.” But that is so much, and the people of St. Benoit have given us so much more. When they thank us for our “sacrifice,” we tell them, “All we have done is open our hearts.”

On our last night, Monsignor Wildor throws a party for us and his 32 staff members. There is a dinner and music, laughing and dancing. At one point Mertyl Fritznel, the young seminarian who is principal of the middle school, stands up and thanks us one more time.

“This is one of the best miracles in Haiti,” he says.

We feel blessed to be a part of it.