Haiti is closer than sea away with parish twinning

Parishioners at St. Katharine Drexel Parish in New Orleans celebrated a Creole Mass Sept. 23, courtesy of Father Jean Francois Tristant, pastor of Notre Dame Des Sept Douleurs in Grand Boulage, Haiti.
“You are so beneficial to me,” Father Tristant told a packed church through interpreter Wadner Pierre, a Loyola student. “The children of my parish knew I was coming here, and they said to tell you hello.”

St. Katharine Drexel Parish has a contingent of Haitian natives that worships at the Louisiana Avenue church and has been twinning with the Haitian Catholic parish for the past two years.
“Father John (Cisewski, pastor) was adamant about us twinning with a Catholic Haitian parish,” said Carmel Mire, chairperson of the Haitian Committee at St. Katharine Drexel.
Mire said she and other parishioners were interested in improving the state of education in Haiti and wanted to specifically support a Haitian Catholic school.
“Our goal was to help with tuition and salaries for the teachers, books and uniforms,” Mire said. “Father Tristant said some of the teachers wanted higher salaries or they would leave.”
The committee had planned to go on an exploratory trip to the Catholic parish before the earthquake hit in January 2010. Members eventually arrived in Grand Boulage and saw the devotion to faith of the Haitian people – adults carrying chairs and children walking one to two hours from their home to church and school.
To fulfill its promises to the Haitian parish, St. Katharine Drexel has held several second collections, and its youth group has had school supply drives before the start of each school year.
“We help as much as we can,” Mire said.
Needs are great
Father Tristant said his mountain-top parish, approximately one hour from Port-au-Prince (when there is no traffic), suffered damage in the earthquake and Hurricane Isaac. That, coupled with hard economic and social issues, has caused tough times.
When Father Tristant first arrived in the parish nine years ago, the school was small, with all elementary grades being taught in a little chapel. He petitioned the parents to help renovate an existing parish building to serve as the new school and to find additional teachers.
As he has made improvements, Father Tristant has seen the parish grow in numbers, with approximately 1,500-2,000 families and 600 students in first through eighth grades.
The main school has 410 students, but the remaining students are smaller schools attached to the Catholic chapels that Father Tristant also pastors. Because students sometimes walk long distances to school, providing a hot meal also is an important issue for the church parish, Father Tristant said.Notre Dame Des Sept Douleurs is in the process of building a larger church and expanding its school to accommodate his parishioners.
“Because the economy of the parish is poor, we have to look for other ways for support,” Father Tristant said. “That’s why it’s important to find a parish like St. Katharine Drexel to help us.”
Notre Dame Des Sept Douleurs (Our Lady of Seven Sorrows) Parish has more than an elementary school expansion on its wish list. Father Tristant would like to build a rectory, a high school and a vocational school. Many students only finish elementary school because their parents don’t have the means to send them to high school in Port-au-Prince.
“It is important for our future for students to be able to continue to go to school,” Father Tristant said.
In recent years, he said the Protestant church has come in and is luring students and parents away with more than he can offer.
“I’d like to have the means to help them so they don’t leave their Catholic faith,” he said.
Building a future
The parish has begun to make inroads – with the help of St. Katharine Drexel and others – on the education part of its wish list.
Two years ago, the Haitian Association of Human Development donated $5,000 to help the parish. Some members of St. Katharine Drexel are members of that group.
“That money helped build temporary houses so we could move the classes held in the chapel to these buildings,” Father Tristant said.
Twinning is working
In 2011, St. Katharine Drexel gave its first major contribution – a $3,000 check and school supplies. Parishioners also held several clothing drives. Parishioner Fenelle Guillaume brought what was collected to Haiti on her annual December trip with the nonprofit We Care foundation. It was through Guillaume that the parish first learned of the Haitian parish’s need.
“They call Father Tristant for everything,” Guillaume, said, including rides into Port-au-Prince for various medical reasons and emergencies due to lack of healthcare in the area.
Mire said the parish presented Father Tristant another check on his recent visit. It was his second to the parish, each time putting a human face to the cause that St. Katharine Drexel supports.
Father Tristant said other parishes have given verbal support to his ministry but St. Katharine Drexel in New Orleans has been the largest champion of his parish so far. He is working hard to complete the expanded church by 2013.
“Our goal is to find the money to complete the church to celebrate our 10th anniversary inside,” Father Tristant said. “We also want to help the youth see their future.”
Mire said the twinning has been beneficial to St. Katharine Drexel as well.
“I know it’s changed everyone,” Mire said. “It has changed members of the committee, especially seeing how they live. The need is so great there, and our parishioners have been very open with their hearts and their pockets. … It’s giving not only to the people in our city but where the need is greater. We are all part of the Christian community and want to do something outside.”
St. Katharine Drexel’s weekly Creole Mass is Sunday at 11:30 a.m.
            Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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