Updates from Haiti

Young Haitian seminarian can teach us all

Seminarian Fritznel Mertyl teaches catechism to a middle school class. (Clay Drewes)

As another anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, I keep thinking about Fritznel Mertyl and all that he went through in 2010. It was not a hurricane that changed his life but the earthquake in Haiti, and his story stays with me.

It's easy to distance ourselves from faraway disasters, and difficult to understand the scope of them.

Remember how we felt, trying to explain the miles and miles of devastation after the storm? The lost homes, neighborhoods and friends, the lost fabric of our everyday lives?

It wasn't until I rode through Port-au-Prince in late April and saw the piles of rubble still stacked on street corners that I began to grasp what the earthquake had done more than four years earlier. It struck a little before 5 pm. on Jan. 12. It killed well over 100,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

"This was the epicenter," Muguet Bolotte said, a few minutes after we left the capital. It didn't look any different to me than what we had been seeing in the city.

We were headed to Dessources, a small village 60 miles and 5 1/2 hours away on the side of a mountain in southwest Haiti. We would spend nearly a week there, handing out medicine and books, first aid kits and school supplies, prayer cards made by school children and dresses sewn by loving hands.

Muguet was the leader of our mission team from Mary Queen of Peace Church in Mandeville, It was the third visit to St. Benoit Parish for her and Teresean Sister Marina Aranzabel; the first for me and three other team members.

After the earthquake, Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond invited parishes in the Archdiocese of New Orleans to partner with parishes in Haiti. Through Catholic Relief Services, Mary Queen of Peace was put in touch with Monsignor Wildor Pierre, the pastor of St. Benoit.

In 2012, when I first heard about the partnership, Muguet explained it this way: "It was kind of like a blind date, but we got the right priest," she said. "Monsignor Wildor is passionate about helping his people."

I met Monsignor Wildor during his yearly visits to Mary Queen of Peace -- a tall charismatic man whose smile could light up the room. He had been sent to St. Benoit in 2009 when nothing was there except a tiny chapel with a leaky tin roof. There was no rectory, no school for the children.

"I will sleep in the sacristy of the church," he said.

When the earthquake struck, it tore off the new roof and destroyed everything he and the villagers had done in the brief time he had been there. During our visit, I asked if that had disheartened him, and he said no.

"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 prayed to God to help him and bring others to help him. The ministry at Mary Queen of Peace answered his prayers. Working together, the two parishes have made remarkable progress.

Now, St. Benoit has a pretty little church with a roof that doesn't leak. And, thanks to funds raised by Mary Queen of Peace, there's a water well with a distribution area near the church, so the people can fill their 5-gallon containers in the village instead of walking an hour down the mountain.

And St. Benoit has a school that is educating more than 300 children. 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.

"Sans l'education on ira nul part," was written on the chalkboard in the kindergarten classroom, which means, "Without an education, you aren't going anywhere."

This school year, Monsignor Wildor added middle school in the afternoon. When the

IMG_2613.JPGFritznel Mertyl, the young seminarian serving at St. Benoit Parish in HaitiClay Drewes

elementary school children head home, 50 seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders file into the classrooms. And that is why Fritznel Mertyl, the man I keep thinking of, is at St. Benoit. The young seminarian was sent there to be principal of the middle school, where the students are learning French and English, math and geography. He shares his office with the elementary school principal.

One afternoon, Fritznel sat down with Sister Marina and me and told us his earthquake story:

The day of the earthquake he was at the Center of Religious Formation in Port-au-Prince, attending a conference about the pastoral care of children, a subject dear to his heart.

"It was a big gathering, about 250 seminarians and other religious," he said. "The seminarians were really happy. It had been a great conference."

They had just finished the final session, and people were beginning to leave.
"Some stayed behind, talking," Fritznel said. "Others were getting in cars."

Many of his friends were still in the building. They told him, "Stay with us," but he and two other seminarians stepped outside.

"Three minutes later, the whole two-story building went flat," he said. "I lost 14 of my fellow seminarians."

He was 22 at the time. He and his two fellow students grabbed each other's hands and tried to cross the street. His friends asked, "What is happening? What's going on?"

"I told them, 'It's an earthquake,'" he said. "I had seen a program on my laptop. That's how I knew what it was."

One friend said, "We're dead," and Fritznel said, "No, God is not going to allow that to happen."

"We were still holding hands," he said. "It was like we were dancing. The whole street corner was moving."

They could see houses crumbling and falling down in pieces.

"We could hear people in the rubble. They cried, 'Come and save us,'" he said. "The most difficult thing was that we could not do anything because fallen electric wires were everywhere."

They were 1.25 miles from the seminary, and they started to walk in that direction.

"We could see dead people everywhere," he said. "The Ministry of Education building was flat. It looked like a lasagne. Everybody in there was already dead."

And then everything was white, and they could barely see anything in front of them or behind them.

"We were wrapped in a cloud of dust," he said.

When they finally made it back to the seminary, they saw that it was still standing. Then Fritznel headed for a nearby school run by a nun, the place where he did his pastoral care.

"I would go teach catechism at the school," he said. "I knew the children. They loved me a lot."

He couldn't find the nun, and he spent that night going back and forth between the school and an orphanage she ran, trying to console the children in both places.

"They were crying. Every five minutes there was another tremor, and they were very, very afraid," he said.

He tried to find people to help him get the students who were trapped under debris at the school.

"I wanted to cry, but I knew I could not fall apart in front of the children," he said. "I was afraid if I stopped talking to them, they would die. I wanted to give them hope, hope that they would stay alive."

Eventually, he learned that 224 students had died at the school where the children loved him.

"It was 224 children," he said softly, as if he still could not believe the number.
Eight days after the earthquake, his mother, who lives in the central part of Haiti, managed to reach him on his cellphone.

"When she heard my voice, she started to cry," Fritznel said. "She said, 'Today, I was reborn. Today, I begin to live again.'"

For two months, he stayed with the orphans, and then he was sent to a parish. Six months later, he was back at the seminary. Then, last October, he was sent to St. Benoit to work with Monsignor Wildor. Besides being middle school principal, he teaches catechism and is in charge of the choir and all the music.

He is supposed to be there for a year, but that could change. And he has no idea how long it will take him to become a priest and have his own parish in Haiti.

"Nothing is really definite," he said, smiling. "This is the country of 'I-don't-know.'"

But he is happy living in Dessources, where the climate and the children are pleasant and the villagers are generous and hospitable.

"I love the people here, and they love and respect me," he said.

The best part is helping Monsignor Wildor, who works so hard and has accomplished so much in four years.

IMG_1383.JPGMonsignor Wildor Pierre, Fritznel Mertyl's inspirationClay Drewes

"It is really good for me to see someone with so much courage," he said. "I feel encouraged to become a good priest with the heart of Christ because I see that in Monsignor Wildor. He is very good at forgiveness."

What impressed me so much about Fritznel is how he has responded to the great losses in his life.

He still grieves for all the suffering caused by the earthquake, and for the children and the friends who died. But sometimes he feels their presence, and he knows he must keep going, for them and for the people who need him.

"I used to be a man who could be easily discouraged," he said. "But I realize now, even in the most difficult times, I can accompany people who are hurting. I can give them hope."

Contact Sheila Stroup at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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