By Patricia Brintle
In October of 2012, we travelled to Ile a Vache to assess St. Antoine de Padoue School which is administered by the Petits Freres de Sainte Therese de l’Enfant Jesus.
In the months prior to leaving, whenever I would tell someone about our destination, I would hear about the beauty of the island, how it is a little paradise where couples spend their honeymoon, a beautiful little corner of the world that civilization had not touched. I would hear about spectacular sunrises and sunsets; about lounging on the beach sipping on a coconut laced with Barbancourt Rum; about that little sandbar you can walk to and claim as your private island for a day. I was filled with anticipation.
Brother Anthony Saint Juste picked us up the morning after our arrival and off we went. We stopped at Riviere Froide Café-Lompre near Leogane to visit their mother house, have breakfast and discuss the project with Brother Leandre who is in charge of the congregation. The brothers are hard working and try their hand in agriculture, bee keeping, iron work, and just about any work to raise money to survive. They do most of their own construction but too often need financial help to purchase materials.
On the road to Les Cayes we could not help notice the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy just a week prior. Huts were submerged underwater, plantations flooded; many trees uprooted, especially in the banana fields where they all laid broken in the muddy water. The damage was tremendous. In early afternoon we were boarding a small open boat from Les Cayes to Ile a Vache.
We sat in the middle of the boat and were given a plastic sheet which we thought was to protect us from the sun but quickly realized it was to shield us from the sea splashing abundantly in the boat. It was a very bumpy 30 minute ride which slowed a bit as we approached the island and cruised along the coast line until we reached the small village of Madame Bernard. We docked and walked across a waterlogged plaza and up a hill to the home of the brothers. They welcomed us with open arms and bright smiles.
After washing the sea salt from our hands and face and went on to assess the school along with the local engineer and other members of the community. We visited the building, inspected each room and took many pictures. The edifice was in such bad shape that we were surprised children and teachers could actually use the space. We measured, pulled, pushed, jumped on board, and made extensive notes to be discussed with volunteer architects and engineers in the US.
The evening meal was spent discussing getting to know each other and discussing what to expect from the community of Ile a Vache. We learned that the inhabitants feel left out and separated from the mainland. Life is difficult there. It takes much effort to transport goods, water is scarce and the soil does not lend itself to a very successful agriculture. We spoke about the hotels and resort on the other side of the island but were told that they were very beautiful but that the owners and guests are far removed from the poverty that exists on their side of paradise. We could feel the pain in their voice.
The next day we celebrated mass at the nearby church and admired the boat shaped altar and the crucifix made from an anchor. We prayed for the community of Ile a Vache and for the means to repair the school. Soon after, we took the boat to Les Cayes and to an SUV toward our next destination: The mountain top village of Baudin in the diocese of Jacmel.
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NY Times Article on Ile a Vache history: Efforts to colonize African-Americans under President Geffrard. See link below.