ASSESSING MARIE REINE IMMACULEE by Patricia Brintle
We were six to travel: Joseph Brintle, Ellen Rhatigan, Robert Choiniere, Eddy Leveque and me. We arrived in Port-au-Prince on a Delta flight around noon. Because the Toussaint Louverture International Terminal had been damaged by the earthquake of January 12th, a plane hangar served to process arriving passengers. It was hot and humid and very uncomfortable. As soon as we passed the exit door we were accosted by a number of taxi drivers and baggage handlers hoping to serve us. My cousin’s hand waving above the sea of heads was a welcomed sight.
We all packed into his car and suddenly realized that Ellen was not in the vehicle. Behind the car she stood, surrounded by a dozen or so youth, her purse in hand, dotting out coins into each of those skinny hands extended toward her. We urged her in and drove away. Tent cities were everywhere. Many had blue tarps that extended into a makeshift porch. Others were reinforced with wood planks and sheets of tin roofing which revealed that this temporary situation could quickly become permanent.
We headed to Petionville for lunch then continued on to my cousin’s home in Fermate, an area in the mountain high above Port-au-Prince. The house was covered with lush greenery and was surrounded by mountains with magnificent views. Luckily, the earthquake had not touched this part of the island and the home was far removed from the tent cities of Port-au-Prince.
We spent a nice evening and chatted about the reason for our trip. We recounted the request from Pere Claude Lavalas wishing to have his church repaired and the fact that it was important for us to personally assess the work and meet the parish community as well as the Bishop whose jurisdiction the parish was under.
Early in the morning we headed to the National airport to board a 30-seater and enjoyed a bird’s eye view of the magnificent southern coast of Haiti on our way to Jeremie. We were welcomed by Pere Claude Lavalas, the pastor of Marie Reine Immaculee truck and my friend Mica de Verteuil, founder of Paradis des Indiens, at whose home we were to stay in Les Abricots. We were scheduled to meet with the bishop of Jeremie but still had a few hours to kill so we visited the unfinished Cathedral of the Miraculous Medal then headed to a local restaurant where we feasted on a wonderfully delicious Haitian meal and enjoyed our first Prestige, the national beer which was to become our favorite drink in Haiti. We visited a friend’s home set a midst a lovely garden and across the famous Anse d’Azur beach then left for our meeting at the Chancery. It was a pink edifice with beautiful views of the sea with the town of Jeremie to one side and the mountains to the other. A cool breeze welcomed us as we met with Bishop Gontrand Decoste and his staff.
We thanked Bishop Decoste for his warm welcome and introduced the visitors. Bishop thanked us for our dedication then introduced his staff. We gave a synopsis of why we were having this meeting, emphasizing the fact that we needed his approval for any work that would take place under his jurisdiction. We told of the generosity of the many donors, we stressed that projects must not be idle, and that once started, they must be completed in a short period of time. I said that the world is now suffering from “donor fatigue” and as a team we have a responsibility toward those who give to us a part of their lives no matter how small the gift. I added that these projects will require a strong commitment from all parties involved, the US group, the local church, the town administration and the workers. Everyone learns from each other and lifetime friendships are created.
We were given a map showing the geographical placement of all 38 parishes and the Bishop told us of the areas that were in particular need of help. Two churches mentioned were St. Louis, the parish church of Jeremie located in the middle of town; and, St. Helene, a church in the suburbs of Jeremie. The Bishop said that the earthquake caused a crack in the front wall of the St. Louis church near the bell tower. For this reason the bells had been silent since January 12, although a special permission was given to ring the bells for the feast of St. Louis the next day. We then said our good-byes, snapped a few pictures and promised to see each other the next day at the high mass for the feast and left the Chancery for the arduous road to Les Abricots.
The potholes of NY would envy the crevices we were riding on, but we made it to Les Abricots by night fall desperately wishing for a visit to the chiropractor. Mica welcomed us in town with two flashlights and we did the rest of the road on foot via a short walk on the beach and a surprisingly sharp rocky climb up to the front of her house. The climb was unexpected but we quickly forgot it when faced with the beauty of Mica’s house with its rustic cement construction, arches that let in the cool breeze and offered fabulous views of the sea. She showed us to our rooms and we unpacked, tired and eager for a good night’s sleep which came after a light supper.
The next day, we drove back to Jeremie for the feast of St. Louis, the patron saint of Jeremie. The Bishop was the celebrant and co-celebrants included the retired bishop from Cayes, and other priests whom we had met the day before. On the left transept were about 50 priests from parishes in the Diocese and on the other side was the choir. Front benches were occupied by civic and political dignitaries and the middle aisle was taken by the media broadcasting live.
The mass ended with applause which gave way to words of encouragement, pleas for public works, remembrances, announcements, diocesan assignments, and final words by the pastor of St. Louis who ended his speech with a firm and loud “Vive St. Louis! Vive la Grande Anse! Vive la decentralisation!” A rousing applause welcomed those words that seemed to be the signal for the ringing of the bells. We looked back and saw a group of about ten young men and pulling at the chords with feet leaving the ground to let out one of the most beautiful and joyous carillon we had ever heard. As we went down the centre aisle, we could notice the crack in the wall of the bell tower, a harsh reminder of the reason we were there.
Mass was followed by a dinner party at the presbytery during which we distributed gifts of church items to pastors of parishes in need. We then took the road back to Les Abricots but not without stopping to visit St. Jean Baptiste in Sassiers a successful parish in the diocese. We arrived in Les Abricots under the cover of darkness and before leaving we gave Pere Claude gifts for his parish and he returned the compliment by giving us a bag full of “comparette” a specialty of Jeremie which is a scone like biscuit made with ginger, spices and raisins. He then said good-bye with a bittersweet heart because he was to leave for the US the next day and would not see us again until we returned to Les Abricots, should the renovation project be approved. We enjoyed dinner with Mica and went to bed.
We woke up leisurely the next morning and took our time at breakfast. Our lives seemed measured and paced again. Mica put her bathing suit on and Bob and Ellen rejoiced at the thought of swimming in the Caribbean Sea. Joe and I forgot to pack a suit. Around 9:00 am, we headed for the alpinist cliff which, surprisingly, no longer seemed so harsh or insurmountable. After the short walk on the beach and a left turn down a street, we were at Marie Reine Immaculee. Someone brought us the keys, the metal doors creaked opened and we walked into a fairly large church.
After a minute of awe during which we could hear a pin drop, clicks and flashes of cameras filled the air and the team set out to photograph, measure, document, and take considerable notes on every part of this centenarian church. The church is over a hundred years old, the commune of Les Abricots having become a parish in 1789. It is not sure if this edifice is the original parish church but today it welcomes about 500 faithful parishioners each Sunday. It is a strong church, painted two tones of blue which shows the signs of age. The center nave is flanked by two side naves separated by 5 pillars – a total of 10 with half pillars on the front wall and transept walls. The floor is cement with tiles on the center aisle. The walls are about 18” thick and made of “la chaux” which is a cement compound. Marie Reine Immaculee survived hurricane Hazel in 1954 which completely destroyed the town, hurricane Andrew in 1992, and lately, the earthquake of January 12th. A cement tabernacle which rises from the floor is unusable with a cemented shut brass door. It separates the altar from a half circle area with two windows and a center alcove. All the windows have decorative cement blocks which let in the light without the need for shutters. The roof is corrugated tin over uneven wood beams under which lays a fiber dropped ceiling.
Our inexperienced observation noticed cracks on the pillars, large holes in the tin roof, termite damage in the framing holding the roof, missing ceiling pieces with the remaining ones hanging by a thread and full rust and water stains, pews with termite damage, broken statues stored in an adjacent room, huge gashes in the doors, cement crumbling from lower walls, sanctuary made of wood platform cracked, cement flooring with tiles on front aisle in dire need of replacement, unsafe electrical wiring, and water marks on all walls. This church needed work.
Our documentation of the church finished, and we proceeded to visit the town’s Mayor. Our meeting was calm, cordial and measured. He told us that much care must be taken to repair an edifice as old as Marie Reine Immaculee and that cooperation among church administration, city officials, and visiting groups was necessary if the repairs were to be effected smoothly. He reminded us that his wife, who was currently working on the reconstruction in Port-au-Prince, is an architect-engineer and has volunteered to draw an estimate of the work. We thanked the Mayor for his kindness and graciousness and made an appointment to meet with his wife in Port-au-Prince. Ellen and Bob headed straight for the beach to swim while Joe and I enjoyed yet another Prestige considering that our assessment work in Les Abricots was done.
The next morning Mica drove us to Jeremie, and we sadly said good-bye, thanking her profusely for being such a gracious and generous hostess. We then stopped at the school of nursing and the Hospital of St. Antoine before heading to St. Helene.
St. Helene is on the outskirts of Jeremie on a hillside. The Vicar welcomed us and guided us through the priest residence which was damaged by the earthquake. When the earth shook, the cement roof slipped to one side and cracked causing several wall and ceiling damage. We walked down a couple of steps and entered the church from behind the altar. It is beautiful pink church, very clean and extremely well kept with a couple of very beautiful artistic pieces. The tiled floor had many puddles of water from the ceiling leaks. We followed Pere Emile up to the roof to witness the damage. The view from there was breathtaking but our eyes could not escape the damage. We went down the stairway to the front of the church where he showed us the opening for their underground cistern the size of the front yard which provided water for the parish as well as for the community. The earthquake caused the cistern to crack and is now unable to hold water forcing the community to fetch water from the river a mile away for their daily needs. It was getting dark so we said our goodbyes and got a written estimate for the repair of the church and a list of needed church items. We left and headed to the house where we would be guests that night. We were each given a bedroom with bath and ready made beds right there at their residence. A restful last night was assured for the team.
The next morning we took the half hour plane ride to Port-au-Prince. My friend picked us up and gave us a tour of the capital before heading up to Petionville and further up to Malik where she lives in a beautiful house with private security. The tour of the city was heartbreaking. So many broken buildings and vendors set up right on the rubbles. No words can describe the feeling of sadness at seeing the multitude of tent cities and remaining debris. I would periodically yell out the various sites we passed by often adding phrases like “that was my school” or “that was my dad’s store” or “that was my house” with a hint of melancholy in my voice. Shortly thereafter we headed up to my friend’s house where we relaxed over cocktails and enjoyed a wonderful dinner in the company of family and friends. Evening came too fast. The night was restful as we seemed to be winding down our trip.
We woke up with the sound of wild parrots and dueling cock crows to a glorious morning. This was to be our last day in this island of paradoxes. That morning we were to meet with the Mayor’s wife. We decided on a restaurant where we gathered around a large table under lush vegetation to have our meeting and enjoy our last Prestige.
Our meeting with the mayor’s wife was one of the most hopeful and positive meetings we’ve had so far. She is from Les Abricots and specializes in seismic constructions. We told her our story and gave her a synopsis of our trip. She gave us a signed estimate of $29,000 which she said can still be cut by saving on material costs from local hardware stores and transport which was offered to us free of charge by the owner of the only ferry making the route. She was knowledgeable, poised and calm, yet passionate about Les Abricots and Marie Reine Immaculee. She explained in layman’s terms the details of the construction and agreed to oversee the technical portion of the work if needed. We told her of our hope to do the work in January within one week. She seemed surprised that it could be achieved in a week but she smiled when I said “Men ampil chay pa lou” (many hands makes for light work).
In summary, our trip was very successful. We did not visit as many places as we had hoped but we did not expect the roads to be as bad as they were. We, however, accomplished a lot in a very short time and we learned a few things, such as that there is no separation of church and state; the dioceses match the regional departments and the parishes match the communes. We learned that the church is neutral but that it does not keep priests from voicing their political or civic opinions from the pulpit.
And now the work begins…