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BRAINTREE -- Cardinal Seán O’Malley visited Haiti March 1-3 together with a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to evaluate the long term needs of the Church in Haiti as it deals with the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake. The cardinal spoke via telephone to The Pilot prior to his departure from the Port au Prince Airport March 3.
Q: Please describe your experience in Haiti to Pilot readers.
A: It’s been a very moving experience, first of all, to see the devastation and the human suffering, and to realize that we are witnessing here probably the worst natural disaster of all times with around a quarter of a million deaths and so many people mutilated and millions of people left homeless in a country that is poverty-stricken and with so little resources to deal with these kind of catastrophes.
It was very inspiring to see the wonderful work that Catholic Relief Services is doing. They run the largest camp for refugees. At night, there are around 65,000 people there and with all the services they are providing, it really is very, very inspiring.
The bishops and the nuncio accompanied us and took us to many different places so that we would be able to speak with the victims of the earthquake and to see the impact that this is having on the life of the country and the life of the Church.
Q. What would you say about the spirit of the Haitian people you have witnessed?
A. The extraordinary thing about the Haitian people is their deep faith. For days after the earthquake, when they were still having tremors, everybody was living outside. Even now, everywhere you go, there are tents in front of the houses. People are afraid of aftershocks but, at night, you can hear the singing of hymns all night long, all over the city.
Q: How devastating was the earthquake for the Catholic Church in Haiti.
A: It’s very obvious that the Church is the strongest institution in the country providing the best education, medical care, and social services. Of course, the Church has suffered a terrible blow. They lost their archbishop, many religious sisters and priests -- and they lost their seminary. Many of the schools, churches, community centers, and clinics have been destroyed; so it’s obvious that the Haitian Church is going to need a lot of help going forward to rebuild its communities so they can serve the people.
Q: Tuesday you celebrated Mass for a convent of nuns who had lost some of the sisters in the earthquake. How were they doing?
A: Some of them are pretty much in shellshock. It was wonderful to be able to celebrate a Mass with the community. They lost 15 of their sisters. We visited the convent that had collapsed where the sisters had died. It was very moving to have the Mass there and to celebrate it for them and for their community.
Once again, the Haitian people have resilience, a great faith, and determination to overcome all of these hardships that have been visited upon them, not just recently but historically. They are a people that have suffered a lot and yet they maintain a great spirit, and a dignity, and a desire to move ahead.
Q: The Church in the United States has raised around $35 million for Haiti, $2 million of which is coming from Boston. To which areas do you expect this help will be channeled long-term?
A: Another $80 million has been raised that was given directly to Catholic Relief Services. The $35 million represents the money that the dioceses have collected in their collections. Most of that money will go directly towards relief -- housing, potable water, food, medical health. But some of the money will be used to rebuild the infrastructure.
Only 10 percent of the schools in Haiti are public schools; 90 percent of them are private schools, and the best schools are the Catholic schools. We visited one yesterday that is sponsored in great part by the Diocese of Providence through Deacon Patrick Moynihan. That school takes the very poorest children from the slums and gives them an extraordinary education and helps them get onto college. The only thing they ask of their graduates is, if they stay on in Haiti, to help rebuild the economy.
Q: On Monday evening, you met with the president of Haiti. Can you tell us about that conversation?
A: He was very grateful for our presence there and appreciative of the work of the Church, particularly the extraordinary work of CRS. He’s very concerned about the future. Certainly, education is one of the great priorities.
Q: Boston is home to a large Haitian community. After experiencing the devastation firsthand, what would you say to the Haitians in Boston?
A: I tried to represent their sentiment and solidarity with the people here. There is a great sense of unity with the Haitians in the diaspora and a great sense of gratitude for all that they do. About half of the gross national product of the country is the money that is sent every month by Haitians in the United States and Canada to help their families with just basic needs.
Certainly there’s a great deal of unity and fraternity. I’ve told everyone here that we would be having a Mass on Sunday (March 7) with the community there to be able to personally report on our visit to the Haitian community in Boston.