By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
When St. Francis of Assisi Parish in uptown New Orleans approached its 125th anniversary in 2015, the anniversary committee naturally planned several events and liturgies to mark the achievement during its yearlong celebration.
But there was always a sense from the committee members, said Father Michael Schneller, St. Francis of Assisi’s pastor, that the parish should “look beyond itself and beyond our boundaries” in order to do something substantial.
This month, nearly three years after the initial idea was floated to help the Catholic Church in Haiti rebuild its infrastructure, Father Schneller and six others traveled to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere to dedicate St. Francois Xavier Chapel in Giles, whose $80,000 construction was paid for by parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi.
The Mass of Thanksgiving on Dec. 3 in Giles, Haiti, had Father Schneller nearly speechless.
“I mean, I can’t tell you how proud I was of the Catholic Church and what it is doing and providing for people,” Father Schneller said. “What the government doesn’t do, the church is making quite an impact.
“I get emotional just thinking about it. I had a difficult time controlling my emotions. I was filled up. I was so proud of the generosity of our people to be able to do that for them. All they wanted was a church – a chapel – a place to worship. It has become the center of their lives, and I wish it was that way for our Catholic parishes back home.”
Started with connections
St. Francis of Assisi became connected with the parish in Haiti – St. Benoit in the Diocese of Anse-à-Veau et Miragoâne – through another parish of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Mary Queen of Peace in Mandeville.
After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Mary Queen of Peace Parish in Mandeville, then under the leadership of Father Ronald Calkins, provided money to rebuild St. Benoit Church and subsequently paid for the construction of a parish school.
Mary Queen of Peace also sends about $20,000 a year to defray the salaries of the entire faculty, and a parishioner pays for high school tuition for five students each year.
While the mother church had been rebuilt, St. Benoit Parish has seven separate chapels in various parts of the remote, mountainous region.
“Seven chapels on seven hills,” said Teresian Sister Marina Aranzabal, pastoral associate at Mary Queen of Peace.
Each chapel was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake. Every time the Mary Queen of Peace parishioners visited with the pastor, Msgr. Wildor Pierre, to check on how the parish was rebuilding, invariably parishioners who were attending Mass under a tent where St. Francois Xavier chapel once stood pleaded with the Americans to help rebuild their small worship space.
They needed an angel.
“I told a woman, ‘We believe a parish is going to help you,’ and she said, ‘Yes, Sister, but how long is it going to take before they help us?’” Sister Marina said.
Father Schneller attended a Mary Queen of Peace fund-raiser for Haiti when he got wind of the need to rebuild St. Francois Chapel, which had existed since 1889 – one year before St. Francis of Assisi was established in New Orleans in 1890.
“That’s one of the reasons why we liked the idea – it was just one year older than our parish,” Father Schneller said. “That, and the name ‘Francis.’”
Money raised in 10 months
Over a 10-month period in 2015 and 2016, St. Francis of Assisi’s parishioners and a local foundation donated $75,000 to the rebuilding fund. The parish also used proceeds from its #iGiveCatholic online giving campaign and from a reunion gala for students of the former St. Francis of Assisi School, which closed in 1996.
Some parishioners made pledges over 10 months, Father Schneller said. The money for the rebuilding was sent in installments through Mary Queen of Peace.
“We knew the money was going toward the chapel,” Father Schneller said.
It took about eight months for the cement chapel, painted the color of a light terra cotta, to be finished. It seats about 250 people, but for the dedication Mass by Bishop Pierre-André Dumas, the congregation of about 500 spilled out into the yard surrounding the church.
A true offertory
One of the touching moments during the three-hour liturgy, Father Schneller said, came during the offertory, when women brought up baskets of food and vegetables and carried chickens and roosters in their arms to place at the altar. A rooster crowed during the Mass.
“They sang all in Kreyol,” Father Schneller said. “The only thing I understood was when they said my name or ‘St. Francis of Assisi’ and ‘New Orleans.’ Words don’t capture it.”
Melisa Rey, head of Family Life Ministries at St. Francis of Assisi, has visited Haiti twice since April, each time coming away profoundly moved by the faith of the Haitian people.
In April, Rey spoke to a mute woman who lived with her elderly mother 200 yards down the mountainside from St. Francois Xavier Chapel, which was then under construction. They communicated through Ida Estopinal, a Mary Queen of Peace parishioner who knows sign language.
“The woman’s family has been living for years at the bottom of the hill and looking up at the destroyed chapel,” Rey said. “She just kept saying, ‘Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! From the bottom of my heart, thank you! I love you! I pray for you and for the people of St. Francis of Assisi every single day. I love you!”
A silent guide
Then, a heavy rain came through, making the walk down the mountain treacherous.
“This woman grabbed me by the arm as if she was guarding my life and carefully led me, in her bare feet, down the safest path on the muddy and slippery path to get back to our vehicle safely,” Rey said.
The only thing remaining from the former chapel was the foundation, so some material was able to be reused. All the work was done by locals. Sister Marina said what impressed her most about the Haitian people was their selflessness.
“It is a very, very poor but a vibrant community,” she said. “You could have promised them electricity and running water, and I don’t think would have been as happy. People are hungry. They don’t have houses with electricity. All they wanted was their church. St. Francis of Assisi gave them their church.”
Rey also saw a divine plan playing out.
“This happened only through the power of God at work,” she said. “A bunch of things had to happen. There was the faith of the people, who prayed for someone to come along; Msgr. Wildor being assigned to that parish; Sister Marina and Tony Pastorello (a parishioner of Mary Queen of Peace) being moved by the faith of the people to seek out a sponsor; planting the bug in Father Michael’s ear for our anniversary year; donating to it; the people who did the construction.
“So many things had to fall into place, but it started with faith.”
St. Francis of Assisi parishioners Keith Colvin, Randy Argote and “Tiki” McIntyre also made the trip for the chapel dedication. Both St. Francis of Assisi and Mary Queen of Peace are discussing future collaborations with St. Benoit.
“There are other chapels in the parish that are desperately in need of rebuilding and support,” Rey said.
For more information on helping Catholics in Haiti, contact Rey at email@example.com or 227-3766.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.