I was able to travel to Port-au-Prince, Haiti on January 15th with the help and support of many people. Unable to fly into Haiti I changed my airline connection and went to Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic. I had a friend and colleague, The Rev. Joe Diaz, accompany me. Joe is Rector of Holy Trinity Church, Clearwater, FL and his diocese, The Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, has a companion relationship with the Episcopal Diocese of the Dominican Republic. Joe had called the bishop’s office in the Dominican Republic and made the necessary arrangements for our trip. We were met at the airport by Deacon Bob Snow, and his wife, Ellen Snow, appointed missionaries from the Episcopal Church to the Church in the Dominican Republic. They drove us to the diocesan center where there is a dormitory for visitors. We left the next morning at 6:00 a.m. headed for the frontier. Bishops Julia Holquin, diocesan, and Bill Skilton, assisting bishop, headed up a convoy of three vehicles loaded with supplies for Haiti. Six hours later we arrived in the frontier town of Jimani where we were met by the priest-in-charge, Padre Jesus.
After a short rest and a good meal, we were taken to a clinic near the border where it was reported about 3,500 Haitian patients had been seen over the last two days. It was chaos. We all were required to get an injection there (we were told it was a tetanus shot!) before being allowed to enter Haiti. We left our escorts there and were driven over the border with Padre Jesus and his driver now our traveling companions. It took about three hours to get to Port-au-Prince. Padre Jesus had been taking essential materials into Haiti since the earthquake but had not known where to take supplies to a specific Episcopal institution. We drove to College St. Pierre where we had been told the children of St. Vincent’s and other members of the Church were residing. What a sight! The soccer field was covered with tents, mostly small two-person tents which had been donated some time before by Food for the Poor. There were other “make-shift” tents also, and many, many people were sleeping on the ground in and around the campus. After greeting many old friends (lots of hugs and tears), I introduced Padre Jesus to Pere Sadoni and Pere Beauvoir, and we unloaded the vehicles and let the padre get back on the road to his home in Jimani. College St. Pierre is absolutely ruined. The administrative offices and all the classrooms are totally destroyed. The chapel, with the mural my wife, Margaret, and several College St. Pierre students created, still stands – although the foundation is cracked. It appears the only structure that remains unharmed is the outside toilet. The seminary stands, but the walls are seriously cracked. The canteen has fissures as well. The apartment building behind the campus appears to be okay, yet no one is residing there. The rest of that day and evening was a time for reunions and hearing frightening stories of the earthquake. I determined that no one really knew exactly how many children of St. Vincent’s were killed, or, in fact, how many people in the other Episcopal institutions in Port-au-Prince lost their lives in this terrible tragedy. It would seem that 6-10 children were lost at St. Vincent’s main campus, and 4-5 lost their lives at the Boy’s Foyer. I cannot confirm any of those numbers (every one I asked had a different number). That evening we walked through Port-au-Prince to the Church of the Epiphany. Destruction was everywhere – and people were everywhere – everyone wanted to live on the street – no one was chancing sleeping in a building. When we returned to the campus of College St. Pierre, we were assigned a tent (it has been a long time since I slept on the ground). Joe and I shared a tent and I told him that Haitians, under normal circumstance, don’t get much sleep. By the next morning he understood; there was talking (and singing) until 1:00 a.m., and it all began again by 4:00 a.m.
I was not able to see Bishop Duracin on Saturday because he had a meeting that lasted well into the night with President Preval, his parliament, and other church and community leaders. He greeted me enthusiastically early Sunday morning. Then Pere Sadoni took us on a tour of the Episcopal institutions in the inner city. First, we passed by the park areas which are teeming with people, then we went by the palace where there are hundreds more. As we entered the street where St. Vincent’s is we could see the debris from St. Vincent’s actually lying in the street itself. When we got there we saw that several buildings were still erect, but that they were seriously damaged (cracks in the walls, etc.), and I suspect they have all been rendered useless. From there we went to the Boy’s Foyer. It was interesting that several young men were there – boys who were actually staying on the campus of College St. Pierre – using the available water at the foyer with which to bathe. One of them was in a wheelchair and had obviously wheeled himself all that way so as to be able to get clean! Again, all we found was destruction. I then sought out Jean Robert, who lived in proximity to the foyer and worked at St. Vincent’s, and his family. I found them alive and well. Next we went to the Holy Trinity Cathedral complex. Again, we found nothing but destruction. The cathedral itself, Holy Trinity School, the Convent of the Sisters of St. Margaret – all destroyed. The Professional School was in session at the time of the earthquake and many teachers and students were killed – again the number is elusive. We found the same type and level of destruction at the Episcopal University, the Art Museum, and the Foyer Notre Dame. That afternoon there was a service of Holy Eucharist. The Rev. Canon Oge’ Beauvoir was the celebrant, and Pere Sadoni, Fr. Diaz, and I concelebrated. It was a time of inspiration. I don’t think you had to understand a word of French or Creole to know that God was present in that moment – and in the words spoken.
Joe and I assisted in the distribution of water and other essential items the next day. At midmorning Padre Jesus arrived with another truckload of materials, which were also distributed among those camping at College St. Pierre. We said our goodbyes (again, a lot of tears and hugging) and drove to the bishop’s house where he had a crew attempting to retrieve some items from his destroyed home. Padre Jesus had been instructed by his bishop to meet with Bishop Duracin before Padre Jesus left Haiti. That meeting took place on the grounds of the bishop’s residence. During that meeting Padre Jesus said to Bishop Duracin, (and I paraphrase here) “your situation in Haiti has been engraved on the hearts of your brothers and sisters in the Dominican Republic.” It was a moving moment and difficult for my friend, Joe Diaz, who was acting as the Spanish interpreter, to even say in English. We drove back to Jimani, and after a time of rest and a meal, on into Santo Domingo. When we arrived at the Bishop’s office, there were people there waiting for us, and there was more water and other items that had been donated from throughout the diocese to pack into the vehicle that would be going back into Haiti the next day. Late that evening we met at the Snow’s apartment for refreshments and a time of debriefing. The bishops, member of the diocesan staff, Bob and Ellen Snow, and representatives of Episcopal Relief and Development were all present. Again, it was an emotional time trying to relate what we had observed in Haiti and particularly hearing from Padre Jesus as he spoke of God’s love and how he felt so strongly about what his diocesan was doing in partnership with the Diocese of Haiti.
The next morning we went to the airport early to find that Spirit Airlines (on which I was to depart the morning before), did not have a morning flight on Tuesdays. We had hoped to leave that morning on Spirit. There was a late evening flight on which Joe Diaz was scheduled, but it was full. I managed, at the last minute, to get a ticket on a Jet Blue flight that was to fly directly into Orlando. I had to hurry to make that flight, but I did make it! Joe Diaz had to remain in Santo Domingo that day and flew out that evening on his regularly scheduled flight, arriving back in Ft. Lauderdale in the early morning and having to then drive home to Clearwater, arriving at about 6:00 a.m. I am grateful that Joe could travel with me. I firmly believe that his presence was instrumental in the linkage between the Diocese of the Dominican Republic and the Diocese of Haiti during this terrible tragedy.
I am forever grateful to Bishop Holquin, his staff, and the Snows. As difficult as it was to see the horrific destruction and know of the terrible loss of life, this trip only reinforced my love of the Episcopal Church – for this was our Church at its best.
from Bill Squire
Children’s Medical Mission to Haiti
editors note: you can see updates on their trip as well as pictures on their website, www.cmmh.org