Like millions around the world, members of the Milwaukee Archdiocese watched their televisions in disbelief as Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the site of many
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Catholic missions, collapsed into a pile of debris, Tuesday, Jan. 12. The likelihood that anyone was alive beneath the tons of rubble was scarce. Streets lined with bodies, understaffed hospitals overflowing with injured and dying, homes and churches destroyed, and news of their beloved Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot’s death, were punctuated by the screams of children wandering the area.
Stunned Catholics in southeastern Wisconsin grappled with the news and feelings of helplessness. They are praying and opening their wallets.
While much of the information is devastating, glimmers of hope and small miracles emerge. Members of St. Frances Cabrini Parish are breathing a sigh of relief as news unfolds that no lives were lost at the St. Joseph Family Home in Port-au-Prince.
For more than 21 years, the West Bend parish has donated money, Bibles, water buckets, clothing and school supplies to Haiti, and for the last four, the parish has collaborated with St. Joseph, a home designed to get boys off the streets of Port-au-Prince, Fermathe, and Jacmel and into a stable, Christian environment and family. In 1985, the residence began with five boys and to date approximately 20 boys live in the modern home with guest facilities, a chapel and art center. The home is one of three, including Wings of Hope, a home for disabled children, and Trinity House, a home for graduates of St. Joseph, all under the umbrella of “Hearts with Haiti” non-profit organization.
In 1989, twinning became one of the ministries of St. Frances Cabrini and over the past 14 years, 40 parishioners and non-parishioners have traveled to Haiti to experience the poverty and to lend a hand in the poorest country in the world.
Despite the massive damage to St. Joseph Home, only two serious injuries were reported. Most of the damage was below the level of the chapel and the majority of the children were outside during the earthquake.
Director Bill Nathan was among the injured as he was in the chapel on the sixth floor when the five floors beneath him began to collapse. He jumped to the roof of a nearby building and worked his way to the ground, suffering broken ribs.
Readers may recall that Nathan and Walnes Cangas were featured in a September 2008 Catholic Herald article. After receiving his education at the school, Cangas became the director of the Resurrection Dancers and lead choreographer at St. Joseph. He also serves as the home’s assistant director.
According to Renee Deitrich, communications director of Hearts with Haiti, Cangas is fine and spent the first night sleeping on the ground at a neighbor’s residence.
“Wings is crowded with all the Wings kids and now the (St. Joseph) boys,” she said in a letter on the Hearts for Haiti Web site. “Not a lot of space in the visitors dining room and the front of the house for 65 plus people, but we are coping. Everyone is pitching in. We are also starting to get the guys to move as many supplies from the storage rooms in the new part of the house as possible. Limited time is spent in the new part of the house, as we believe it is unstable and don’t know if it will remain standing. There’s a lot we don’t know right now.”
Archbishop pleads for prayers, funds
In a letter to pastors, parish directors and church leaders, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki asked for prayers and financial assistance from area Catholics to assist Catholic Relief Services and other organizations in the country as they tend to the Haitians’ needs.
“We are blessed here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to already have several on-going solidarity efforts with Haiti,” he wrote, citing archdiocesan-based Gesu and Our Lady of Lourdes parishes in Milwaukee, St. Frances Cabrini, West Bend, St. Mary, Hales Corners, St. Matthew,Neosho, and Shepherd of the Hills, Eden. “These parishes and our archdiocesan office for World Mission Ministries have working relationships with Haitian Ministries, Hands Together and other similar organizations that have offices here in United States as well as in Haiti. Such organizations have the ability to disperse 100 percent of the funds where the need is greatest.”
Archbishop Listecki asked World Mission Ministries to receive financial donations from parishes other than those with Haitian ties. One-third of the donations will go to Catholic Relief Services for the immediate need, one-third to Haitian parishes and Milwaukee archdiocesan-sponsored mission organizations, and one-third for later distributions to address the long-term need.
“As Christians, all of us have a great responsibility, even in these difficult economic times, to assist those who are suffering even more than we,” he said. “And so my hope is that all our parishes and schools will do something to assist those in such dire need.”
Norwich Mission House collapses
Members of Our Lady of Lourdes and Gesu parishes are connected to the Norwich Mission House in Port-au-Prince, and despite complete destruction, all but one person has been accounted for to date. According to Ralph Stewart, Our Lady of Lourdes mission coordinator, the parish has had a twinning relationship with the mission house since 1996, frequently hosting mission groups to Port-au-Prince and helping to raise funds to keep the orphanage in operation.
“When the house collapsed there were three trapped inside; current director, Jillian Thorpe, and Lanitte Belledente, the cook, were trapped under the rubble and suffered broken bones and lacerations,” he said. “Lanitte was seriously injured and taken by first responders, and I am not sure where she is at.”
Reports from Partners in Haiti reveal that Thorpe was rescued by her husband, Frank, who dug for 10 hours through rubble to pull her to safety. Belledente lost a leg, and attempts to learn of her condition were unsuccessful. Saddened and frustrated by feelings of helplessness as the aftershocks and damage continue, Stewart asked for prayers and donations to help the country.
“We are going to speak at all the Masses this week and hope to have some donations come into help these people,” he said. “It is all so very sad; the archbishop of Port-au-Prince was a wonderful man and very supportive of our mission. We just all need to pray.”
The twinning relationship between Gesu and St. Jude Parish in Mon Opital, just outside Port-au-Prince, began in 2002 after Norwich Mission house presented a profile of the parish and its needs. Gesu held its first mission trip to its twin in March of that year.
While there is no word on St. Jude Parish, Eileen Ciezki, director of social ministry at Gesu, is hoping that the silence is due to lack of available communication rather than something much worse.
“We are hoping that they are OK since the parish is located 45 minutes up the mountain and southwest of Port-au-Prince,” she said. “While Our Lady of Lourdes supports the mission house, we support the parish and when we bring mission groups to Haiti, we always began at Norwich, which was an important part of our mission, and then we traveled to the national museum which was not far from the presidential palace. It was a wonderful place to go for history and I have a feeling that it did not survive the quake.”
Couple prays for ‘heart child’
Retired dentist Dr. Ron Pruhs and his wife Ronnie, a retired nurse, frequently traveled to Haiti on dental missions and were scheduled to travel to the dental clinic at the end of January.
“Three of its walls were destroyed from what we can tell,” said Ciezki. “We are so worried, we don’t know if the staff are OK, or much of anything; we just watch and pray and plan to take up a second collection to help buy water, feed the kids, and help to rebuild the clinic. Other than that, we just don’t know….”
For years, the Pruhs, served the people of Uganda and Haiti as missionaries. Their children also grew up assisting their parents in the mission field, and the couple received the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Vatican II award in 1997 for their selfless service to others.
Recently, the couple returned from Tampa where they acted as temporary guardians of a young Haitian girl flown to the United States for heart surgery. The young girl nearly died three times during the surgery and returned to her family in Haiti. She resides in the area of the most devastation and the Pruhs have not learned of her whereabouts.
“Our ‘heart child,’ Manise, lived at the place where the epicenter of the earthquake occurred,” said Ronnie. “We haven’t heard anything. Pray.”
While the mission trip is on hold for now, the Pruhs remain open to going wherever God leads them.
“We will return if we are asked,” said Ronnie.
Earthquake halted St. Mary mission trip
Last week’s earthquake fell on the eve of the annual St. Mary, Hales Corners mission trip to Haiti. Human concerns coordinator Pam Lownick was scheduled to leave with six other women for her 14th trip to minister to their sister parish in Jacmel, and watched in disbelief as bag after bag of medical supplies was brought back to the parish ministry room.
“We were supposed to have a friend of my daughter come with us to translate,” she said. “He was in Jeremie, near our sister parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, in Latiboliere Haiti. He is OK; my daughter was able to communicate with him through the Internet.”
For 21 years, St. Mary Parish has provided funds for a Haitian doctor to visit the city each month, supported nurses in a clinic and health committees in the chapel schools, supplied first aid supplies, first aid stations, and trained and supplied midwives.
“We try to have medical people from our parish come down and work side by side with Haitian medical personnel in the clinic and share their expertise,” said Lownick. “We have an established relationship with a 350-member women’s group as well. They grow coffee beans and send them to us and we roast them. They have a mini co-op and make money when we sell coffee at our parish.”
No one was killed or seriously injured at Matthew 25, the visitation house based in Port-au-Prince. The home is operating a combination shelter/food program/clinic.
“The building is damaged, but survived the impact pretty well and is functioning as a clinic for the neighborhood,” said Lownick, “People are sleeping on their soccer field, and they are providing water and food and medical care as they are able.”
Lack of communication is worrisome
While there is an immediate sigh of relief for the members of Matthew 25, Lownick admitted that the lack of communication leaves them worried about the hundreds with ties to the ministry from whom they have not heard.
“It is just ripping our hearts out,” she said. “There are so many that we have not been able to contact and feel so helpless. We scheduled a prayer service this week and invited all those who have gone to Haiti, those who were going to go and those who have Haitian prayer partners to join us.”
Friends of the Children wait, pray
Scheduled for her seventh trip to Haiti on Feb. 26, Kathy Spiegelhoff of Burlington hopes that she and members of Friends of the Children can resume their medical missionary work, even thought the Jacmel hospital was destroyed.
Begun 10 years ago by Delavan dentist Tom Schuetz and his wife Cindy, the team provides medication, nutritional, prenatal and well baby counseling to members of Our Lady of Perpetual Hope and residents of La Mantagne. Through the years, Spiegelhoff witnessed malnourished babies developing into vibrant children, and heartbreak as the 2008 hurricane ripped through the community, destroying buildings, roads and lives.
“I have been back twice since the hurricane and the first time was a dramatic difference from the way we had left them,” she said. “The malnutrition was horrendous and the crops were gone. The last time we went, things were better; they were rebuilding, planting banana trees and the crops were coming in. It was improving.”
As with many other groups, Friends of the Children does not know how badly the area suffered and asks for prayers and financial donations to continue its work.
“We have not been able to get a hold of any of our contacts,” Spiegelhoff said. “We have put out calls and e-mails and have not heard from anyone yet. Most of our interpreters live in Port-au-Prince – we are just sick with worry. Hopefully, it is just because the communication lines are down and not that we are missing all our friends.”
Prayers, money most important, says mission coordinator
While calls have come to the archdiocesan mission office with donation offers, Franciscan Sr. Frances Cunningham, coordinator of the office, asks that all donations be financial as bringing clothing and bandages to the country is nearly impossible at this time.
“We are discouraging parishes collecting clothes or bandages because the items won’t get there,” she said. “The best thing people can do to help is to send money and pray for these people. They have the most basic of needs right now and we can send money to organizations such Catholic Relief Services where they can help with what is most needed.”