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Parish Twinning Links Haitian, U.S. Catholics

By Christopher Connell

Long before the earth shook and fractured life in Port-au-Prince, hundreds of Catholic parishes across the United States were linked in myriad ways to sister parishes in Haiti, putting roofs on churches, building schools, staffing clinics, and even buying pigs and goats for subsistence farmers.

Even before the January 12, 2010, earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Catholic Relief Services was well aware of the hundreds of U.S. parishes "twinned" with parishes in Haiti. Members of these parishes know the grace of a solidarity-based relationship forged through partnership. CRS recognizes twinned parishes for their commitment to Haiti and the ongoing support they convey through prayers, donations and exchanges with their sister parishes in Haiti. However, CRS has not been involved in the formation of parish twinning relationships and at this time does not have the resources to initiate new parish partnerships. For more information, please visit our Parish Solidarity site.

Those bonds have become stronger even as the suffering has deepened for the people of one of the poorest countries on the planet.

While dioceses and parishes across the United States raised millions in second collections just days after the January 12 temblor—much of it earmarked for Catholic Relief Services' extensive efforts to get food, medicine and shelter for survivors—these "twinned" parishes did not stop there.

From Nashville to La Valle

In Nashville, Tennessee, where the Parish Twinning Program was created in 1978, the Cathedral of the Incarnation parish found a pilot willing to fly a small, twin-engine plane in hops to Jacmel, Haiti, for the cost of fuel alone—$19,000. They filled it with medicine and supplies. Deacon Jim McKenzie, a nurse anesthetist, his son James, a builder, and his daughter-in-law Erin flew down to help their sister parish, St. John the Baptist in LaValle, Haiti. Almost 2 weeks later, they were still there, working alongside Doctors Without Borders physicians and other volunteers.

Meanwhile, the parish was loading a second truck with tons of rice, beans, cooking oil and tents, and dispatching it to Miami for a second mercy flight.

Cathedral parish also sends money via an Internet banking system that the Haitian pastor, Father Guy Dumond, can withdraw instantly through an ATM, "but the problem for him is that where he is, there's nothing to buy: no food, no tents, no supplies," says Father Ed Steiner, the rector. "The thing that cash is good for is buying fuel off the black market, because everything there—the church, the schools, the hospital—is run by generator."

In Solidarity With Haitians

St. Margaret Mary Church in Winter Park, Florida, outside Orlando, raised $104,000 for Haiti in a matter of days. Its pastor, Father Richard Walsh, and five parishioners had been booked to fly into Port-au-Prince on January 13 on one of the church's several yearly visits to their sister parish, St. Isidore, in the western region of Haiti.

Remains of the Eglise Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart Church)

The remains of the Eglise Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart Church), a Catholic church in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after the 7.0-magnitude January earthquake. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

"We've got a lot of people involved here in Haiti. The tentacles have gone out in so many different directions," says the Irish-born priest. "We probably bring down $150,000 in a year. We run several small village banks. At Christmastime we buy goats and pigs, and cows and chickens. Our school provides the lunch program for one of the schools in the sister parish. The kids here eat rice and beans once a month in solidarity with the kids in Haiti. They raise $800 or $900 a month and sometimes we get somebody to match it."

"We also pay the teachers' salaries—and dig latrines for the different schools. Our philosophy is, 'You can do it, we can help,'" says Father Walsh, whose moving January 17 homily about the disaster is available online.

Parish Twinning Relationships

St. Isidore has been the Florida church's twin for 4 years. "Our hope is that after another year or two, we'll be able to move out of that parish and into another," says Father Walsh. St. Mary Margaret's parochial vicar, Father Vilaire Philius, was born in Haiti. "Our desire is not to stay there indefinitely, where they're going to be a Cadillac in relationship to all the Fords in the other [parishes]."

There is no paucity of parishes in Haiti looking for U.S. twin parishes; some of the neediest have more than one twin.

"There are 215 parishes in Haiti that are twins and at least 40 to 50 asking for help" even before the earthquake, says Theresa Patterson, longtime director of the Parish Twinning Program. About 340 parishes in the United States and Canada are linked with churches in Haiti and some in Latin America. Each parish typically provides $500 to $600 a month to its twin. It adds up to $2.5 million a year. A building called Matthew 25 House that the program rents in Port-au-Prince as a base of operations for visitors from sister parishes was damaged, but there was no loss of life.

'Daunting' Situation in Haiti

Bishop Thomas Wenski, the Haitian Creole-speaking bishop of Orlando who spent 18 years ministering to Miami's large Haitian community, attended the outdoor funeral in Port-au-Prince for Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot and his vicar general, Monsignor Charles Benoit, both personal friends. The service was held beside the rubble of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de l'Assomption. (Bishop Wenski got there from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, aboard the Blackhawk helicopter ferrying U.S. Agency for International Development director Rajiv Shah and his delegation).

"The situation in Haiti was daunting, even before the earthquake. It has had maybe 15 disasters of major proportions, including hurricanes and tropical storms, and political turmoil," says Bishop Wenski, who expects the Orlando diocese alone to raise more than $1 million for the relief effort.

Various Relationships—All Important

The depths of relationships that twinned parishes have with their counterparts in Haiti varies widely, notes Bishop Wenski.

"It depends on the parish and the interest and capacity of both the U.S. parish and the parish in Haiti," the bishop says. "Some are involved primarily in education and others in clinics and health care. Some are just trying to help the pastor get a roof over his head so that he can have a place where people can gather to worship."

"Some parishes send regular mission trips down there; others just send a check. Each is important in its own way," says Bishop Wenski.

Father Gerry Creedon, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington, Virginia, spent the week before the earthquake in Port-au-Prince out in the countryside visiting three sister parishes. He was in Santo Domingo when the quake struck—he didn't feel a thing—after spending 3 more days at the Diocese of Arlington's mission at Banica on the border with Haiti.

Economic Development

Father Creedon says St. Charles Borromeo raises upwards of $200,000 a year for projects in Haiti. The twinning relationship was "with one parish originally, but you have lots of priests in Haiti, and it was like the Irish farmers who divided the farms between the sons: We now have three parishes, Gros Marin, Cavaillon and Sudre where we provide scholarships for 800 students and support a nutrition program."

The Arlington parish has provided an $8,000 motor for a grain mill—a favorite project of Father Creedon's, since his father operated a flour mill back in County Cork. "The women come and make cakes and bread to sell them in the market," says Father Creedon. The parish supports other economic development projects as well.

"The major difficulty with any twinning relationship is who are you working with? Are they accountable? Are they leaders? Will they engage their people in a shared responsibility role? Will they be accountable to donors?" says Father Creedon. He added that he knows just such a priest, Father Jocelyn Musalier, who is seeking a twin for his parish in Chantal, close to Les Cayes.

'A Better Life Will Arise'

Father Arsene Jasmin, chaplain to the Haitian community in Washington, DC, had flown to Port-au-Prince on January 11 to attend a retreat for priests in his home diocese. He was not heard from for several days, but he survived the collapse of the house where he was staying. Now he's planning to fly back with medical supplies. Jenny Grover, administrator of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, one of three parishes in the DC area where Reverend Jasmin says Mass in Creole, says, "we're also trying to collect vestments, cruets, albs and stoles to take to the priests who lost everything."

Father Jasmin says his immediate family survived, but some other relatives "we are looking for but don't see yet."

The chaplain also hopes to help Haitian pastors he knows find twins for their parishes. Father Jasmin, who was posted to the United States in 2007, remains hopeful that out of this "terrible tragedy, a better life will arise."

Learn more about CRS' response to the earthquake in Haiti.

Christopher Connell is a freelance author and former Associated Press reporter.

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