HARTFORD, Conn. — In early February, eight members of St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish here — accompanied by Michael Jones, OFM — traveled to Haiti to see their faith in action through the rebuilding of houses devastated by flooding last October.
Working through a program developed by the Diocese of Norwich (Connecticut), St. Patrick-St. Anthony has been twinning with St. Genevieve Parish in Zoranje, Haiti, since 2004.
Over the past four years, the people of St. Patrick-St. Anthony have sponsored several projects in Haiti, including building a new rectory for St. Genevieve, according to Mike, a parochial vicar at the Hartford parish.
Traveling four times to Haiti, Mike said this trip was especially fulfilling since the group witnessed houses they funded being constructed in the mountains. “This trip was different because we saw the first five houses being built.”
He recalled having to walk two hours up a mountain because there were no roads, but the journey was well worth it. Up until the point where the road became impassable, the van traveled seven miles per hour. “This is how they get the cement, tin, metal and other building supplies to the houses. There are no roads. It’s mostly by donkey.”
But in spite of seeing the impoverished conditions, Mike and the group enjoyed being able to mark Ash Wednesday with the people of St. Genevieve, as well as bless a newly-constructed home.
Parish Donates $85,000
The concrete-block two-room houses, which are less than 200 square feet, will house an average family of six, according to Mike, and cost approximately $1,450 each. The money for the rebuilding was raised by parishioners, who generously gave almost $85,000 last year, enough to build 50 houses, he said.
The Feb. 4-11 trip included seeing construction of these homes, as well as staying with the St. Genevieve parish, where poverty is so severe that just having a meal is a blessing.
Mealtime, according to Mike, was difficult. “It’s not a great experience,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to have. Normally, they wouldn’t have three meals a day — they’re lucky to have one. Here we are, with them feeding us all this food and most of them are going hungry.”
But nevertheless, he said, the parish generously offered rice, cold slaw, potato salad, beets, hot dogs, or fish stew. “At other times, we know they killed a goat for us,” said Mike.
A Parishioner Reflects on the Trip
“Seeing Zoronje, the primitive conditions, and how much activity is required to simply sustain life, you can’t not be touched by the conditions and how the Haitian people are trying to help themselves,” said parishioner Jack Martins, after his first trip.
Martins said he was struck by the lack of infrastructure in Haiti. “I took that with me immediately from the airport. I saw devastation, the housing conditions, the road conditions. I thought about lack of running water, no sewers. What would happen if there was a fire? But people appear to be happy in spite of the fact that they do without.”
He also said he was impressed by the happy Haitian faces. “The minute I got out of the plane, I was surprised,” Martin said. “My first observation was how beautiful the people were.”
The trip was so meaningful to Martins and wife, Helen, who participated last year, that the couple plans to return. “I would go back. We’re planning on going in 2010, and may go back annually after I retire. I think we can do some good — beyond donating funds for education, house-building, feeding programs and orphanages. We’re at the beginning levels — a lot still has to be done.”
Martins said he can contribute by helping to raise awareness for the plight of the Haitian people. “All I can offer is my own understanding, compassion and passion to encourage others to understand.”
Improvements Under Way
And while a lot of work remains to be done, Mike said he has seen some improvement. “I’ve seen a lot of progress in the past few years. This year, the country seemed cleaner – they’re trying.” In addition to the new houses being built, schools are going up and a new airport is under construction.
Mike said he hopes to return in July, and is looking forward to planning another trip for the parish next year. He invites others to travel with him and to email him at M.email@example.com
What motivates Mike and the people of St. Patrick-St. Anthony is the expression of gratitude. “A man who was getting a new home came up to us and said, ‘thank you.’ He said, ‘We had no hope.’ It’s this sense that we can be a sign of hope for each other; that we can make a difference on the individual level.”
— Wendy Healy, a freelance writer, is an occasional contributor to HNP Today.