Catholic Church Works To Rebuild After Loss In Haiti

The Catholic Church is trying to rebuild in Haiti after last month's devastating earthquake, which killed many of its church members. Father Andrew Small works for the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has already donated equipment and money to restart the Catholic radio station in Port-au-Prince. Host Michel Martin talks to the Catholic leader about rebuilding efforts.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

Now to Haiti, a Roman Catholic Church in Haiti is among the many institutions devastated by last month's earthquake. The cathedral in Port-au-Prince was destroyed and Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot was killed, so were dozens of priests, nuns, and seminarians.

A majority of Haitians are Roman Catholics, and the church had a widespread social service network throughout the country. We're joined now on the phone by Bishop Thomas Wenski of the Archdiocese of Orlando. Also with us is Father Andrew Small who works for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. And he is the director of the conference subcommittee of the church in Latin America, and both men are involved in helping to rebuild the church in Haiti and minister to the people there. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

F: Good to be here, Michel.

B: Good to be here, too. I'm happy to join you.

MARTIN: Bishop, this must be very difficult for you. You have a long association with Haiti, the Haitian community in Miami. As I understand it, you attended the ordination of Archbishop Miot many years ago. And just - do you mind if I ask you, first of all, my condolences. But may I ask on a personal level how you are? How are you experiencing this tragedy?

B: Well, it did touch home because not only was the archbishop a friend, but I lost other friends in the earthquake. This Friday, which will be a month since the earthquake took place, I'll be celebrating mass in Creole with the Haitian community at Orlando here. Sort of it is a way to help them gain some closure. We'll pray for their relatives and friends that died in the earthquake.

MARTIN: How do you understand this religiously?

B: Well, again, we trust in God's providence. And also, we also understand that we ask for answers, but not all the answers will be given on this side of heaven. So, we know that God can bring good out of evil, and I think one witness to that is the fact there has been so much outpouring of solidarity from all the world, reach out to the Haitians at this moment. So that is a sign of good coming out of the evil of this tragedy.

MARTIN: Father Small, I understand that one of the first, if not the first contributions made by the Catholic Church in America to the Church of Haiti was to send equipment to rebuild a Catholic radio station in Port-au-Prince. Tell me about that.

F: Sure. We've had a long sort of relationship with this entire network throughout all the dioceses in Haiti. And our office is well known in places where literacy is not very high - you know, people don't have, you know, the wonderful access to telecommunications and up-to-date ticker feeds, et cetera. The radio does serve an incredible purpose of connecting people. So this center, this Radio Soleil, the Tele Soleil as well, was destroyed. Some of the technicians - and the priest director was injured, actually, pulled out of rubble.

And the antenna up on the hill wasn't damaged and so they needed some equipment, basic consoles and computer equipment, to record and send the stuff out. So, we have been sort of hustling to get that in through the Dominican Republic so that people are connected again. I mean, when you don't have your house anymore or you're in a, you know, a tent village or something like that, transistor radios and the ability to hear a familiar voice, it's so very important to keep the people connected. So we've been trying to make that happen.

MARTIN: I understand that they are actually broadcasting from a van. Is that right?

F: That's right. That's the latest report that I have. I was down there shortly after the quake, but haven't been back. And some of that has to do with still their nervousness around aftershocks and some of trembling that goes on. And, you know, there are some buildings standing but they feel little bit more comfortable transmitting from a van. To the extent that they can, I think we just need to get some more solid equipments. And then eventually we'll look at how we get them the radio station back again, you know, just like NPR.

MARTIN: Hmm, yeah sure. Bishop, do you have any sense of the extent of loss of the church infrastructure in Haiti? Do you have any sense of how many churches, how many people?

B: The total is still coming in, but two dioceses were affected in a major way. The Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince, which was the largest dioceses in Haiti, but also the city and the Dioceses of Jacmel. So both of these dioceses lost cathedrals, they lost churches, they lost schools, they lost dispensaries, clinics. So the devastation has been almost total in many areas. Two other dioceses abutting that area, Les Cayes and also the new Archdiocese of Miragoane had also suffered, you know, some damages.

But what is also happening right now is that literally thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people have left Port-au-Prince and have gone back to provincial cities and rural areas where they have some roots. And so I was in communication by email with a pastor, a parish priest in (unintelligible), which is about the farthest west that you can get from Port-au-Prince, it's the closest point to Cuba and the Windward Passage, and he was telling me by email how this little town has grown in population tremendously. And of course that has placed strains on the resources of these towns to feed the new population coming in and also the revised schooling, et cetera.

So we don't know whether, you know, that displacement of people is going to be permanent or whether they will start drifting back to Port-au-Prince. But it does present a real challenge, because now the logistics is not only about getting aid to Port-au-Prince and feeding people that are homeless in Port-au-Prince, but also to embrace the entire country.

MARTIN: And Bishop, you see - we've seen many images of people praying outside of the churches, outside of just wherever they can. That has to be very inspiring on one level. On the other, it is a visible reminder of just how much need there is. And many people here are wondering what it is that they can do or should do. And I think that they're probably wondering what is the greater need. On the one hand, people have a need to - those who believe have a need to gather, to worship. On the other hand, the church was involved in just caring for people's daily needs - you know, food, education, medicine and so forth. How would you recommend that people direct their efforts at this point?

B: Well, I think, you know, we have to look at the recovery of Haiti is going to take a very long time. So it's not going to be accomplished by a (unintelligible) generous gift for this month or even next month. Some of the immediate needs are being addressed now, the medical needs of so many people, but even with those that have injured in the earthquake, they're going to have long range needs. There are literally hundreds of children and adults that have lost limbs and they're going to have to be rehabilitated and also trained for some type of gainful living after - in the months and years to come.

But the church has been part of the Haitian life and it reaches everywhere in Haitian society. There's the joke about a minister of public works that was in a rural area of Haiti and his truck got stuck in the mud and he started cursing, saying, what's wrong with these people in this village - don't they have any parish priest here? Because the understanding would be that it would be the priest, the church that would be making sure that the road was passable and that there was drinking water and...

MARTIN: Hmm.

B: ...and cooperatives for the farmers to get their crops to market. So the, you know, the church has to rebuild its places of worship, to be sure. But it also has to rebuild its broader infrastructure of clinics, of schools, of the radio and other ways that it continues to help the people of Haiti.

MARTIN: Father Small, final word from you. Do you - can you think of a comparable disaster that you've addressed in the region?

F: I really can't. We've repeatedly helped in various ways after these types of disasters. A different type of disaster like this was the hurricanes that hit the island of Cuba. And given the difficulty that at times the church has in maintaining its property, and it's certainly not allowed to build new property, there was a new set of challenges so that people can't sort of rebuild the chapels, which are really the places, some other few places that they can convene. So that had its own sense of urgency. But the massive scale of this - the other - maybe one piece is the tremendous love that Haiti and the Haitian people find within this regular churchgoing culture in the United States.

Massive amount of (unintelligible) going on, not only in the Catholic church, Methodist, Presbyterians, Baptists - and I think those human bonds are ultimately what will last when maybe this goes from the headlines.

MARTIN: Okay. Thank you, Father. We appreciate it. That was Father Andrew Small of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Also with us - Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando. Gentlemen, we thank you both so much for speaking with us.

B: Thank you as well. Thank...

F: Bye-bye.

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