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NORTH ANDOVER -- As the effort to rebuild infrastructure in Haiti continues, a Catholic initiative recently began trying to rebuild the infrastructure of the family with a campaign supporting the sacrament of marriage.
On Jan. 26, St. Michael Parish in North Andover received the first wedding dress that will be donated to Immaculate Conception Parish in Milot, Haiti as part of the "Say 'Yes to Dress' Marriage Campaign" sponsored by the Center for the Rural Development of Milot (CRUDEM).
St. Michael parishioner Deb O'Hara-Rusckowski, the nursing coordinator for CRUDEM, said many Catholics in Haiti have stopped receiving the sacrament of marriage in recent years, not because of disrespect for the sacrament or a breakdown of tradition, but rather from a motivation rooted in deep respect for the Church, tradition and culture.
"If they could not afford the wedding dress, the suit, or the tux or the rings -- and coupled with if they could not afford to invite, not just their family but really they have a whole village celebration for such an occasion -- then they just would not get married," she said.
The plan for the campaign developed over a number of years, over a series of trips to Haiti, and with help from Catholics locally and in the U.S.
O'Hara-Rusckowski, director of the Respect Life Office for the Archdiocese of Boston from 2000 until 2008, first traveled to Haiti in 2005 to establish a program to train nurses.
She began teaching natural family planning in 2008 at the request of local parishioners and Father Joachim Anantua, known as Pere Tijwa or "the little priest," who told her the desperate state of affairs regarding family life in Haiti. She said Father Anantua explained that Haitians found it critically important that they have proper attire in church. For the sacraments, "Sunday best" was not enough.
He also explained to her that domestic violence was a problem in cohabiting homes with large families and with children from outside the current relationship.
"So, I said, 'Father Tijwa, go no further. We won't be teaching natural family planning right now. We will teach it, but first we have to teach the respect and dignity in the sanctity of human life, and then chastity, and then natural family planning.'"
O'Hara-Rusckowski said her commitment as a dame of the Order of Malta drove her desire to aid people in need. In the tradition of the Hospitaller order, she saw an opportunity to help.
O'Hara-Rusckowski then arranged a visit to Haiti by Catholic author and speaker Jason Evert, who frequently gives talks on chastity and marriage. She said locals welcomed him with a marching band, an honor prior granted to the cardinal and other esteemed visitors. She said about 300 people packed the parish hall for his teachings on Jan. 7 and Jan. 8.
He came up with the idea behind the "Say 'Yes to Dress' Marriage Campaign" when he noticed how seriously Haitians take their attire.
"They are not wearing jeans and football jerseys on Sunday morning to Mass, let alone shorts. It was amazing watching people walk out of their dilapidated homes dressed like they were going to go see the pope," Evert told The Pilot.
Evert said the trip gave him "a little detox, for a few days, from American materialism."
"If that is the seriousness with which they prepare for their every Sunday Mass, you could imagine how seriously they would take their wedding day. Because of the economic situation, they cannot afford dresses and suits and large receptions and rings, and so a lot of them just don't bother to get married. If they feel they cannot do it right, then they will just not do it at all," he said.
Evert suggested the donation campaign to Father Anantua as a simple way to give the marriage rate in Haiti a boost, because decline in marriage can cause a decline in other sacraments.
"Now because they are cohabiting they're not really practicing the faith, so they don't baptize their kids. Because the kids are not baptized they don't receive first confession or first Communion. So it's this whole series of sacraments being missed for a very simple reason," Evert said.
When Evert asked Father Anantua if he was sure people would marry just by gaining access to the proper attire Evert said the priest's answer was, "Absolutely."
"What we're hoping to do now is to inspire the hearts of women here in America to donate their wedding dresses to be able to provide for these women who don't have one," Evert said.
Ed Constantine, a volunteer pilot, will fly the dresses to Haiti as part of his volunteer work for CRUDEM. The first flight of dresses leaves on Feb. 24.
"There's no end to this for me and whatever CRUDEM needs, I'll keep flying about once a month for them, God willing," Constantine said.
"If this turns out to be a long term initiative, we'll just keep doing it," Constantine said.
Editor's note: Parishes interested in taking part in the program can email Deb O'Hara-Rusckowski at firstname.lastname@example.org, for a copy of the "Say 'Yes to Dress' Marriage Campaign" flyer.