|A worker carries a bucket in early September inside a church in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Church and school reconstruction in Haiti has moved ahead with nearly $20 million allocated through the church-led PROCHE effort. CNS photo/courtesy PROCHE, Haiti
In the five years since an earthquake delivered a devastating body blow to the nation of Haiti and its people, the country has been making a slow climb to recovery.
“After all these years I’ve been there, I think the last year or two is the most promising time in Haiti,” said Theresa Patterson, a parishioner at St. Henry Church in Nashville and the co-founder and executive director of the Parish Twinning Program of the Americas, which connects parishes and congregations in North America with parishes in Haiti to offer support and aid.
Patterson has been traveling to Haiti for more than 35 years and is planning to make her 111th trip there later this year. In some ways, the earthquake gave the country an opportunity to rebuild from scratch, addressing some of its long-standing problems, Patterson said.
While there hasn’t been as much progress as some would hope, there have been improvements, she said, including in education, healthcare and new roads.
“There have been a lot of new businesses in Port-au-Prince,” the country’s capital and one of the hardest hit areas, Patterson said. “I’m amazed every time I go back at all the building.”
But not everything has been rebuilt, she noted. The Presidential Palace, destroyed by the earthquake, has not been rebuilt, neither has Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral. All that remains of the cathedral, one of the city’s landmarks in the heavily Catholic country, is the front wall and part of one of the side walls, Patterson said.
More than 316,000 people died in the earthquake and another 1.5 million were left homeless, forced to live in tent cities and camps. “For the first couple of years, you could see thousands of tents on the hills outside Port-au- Prince,” Patterson said.
An estimated 70,000 to 80,000 are still living in camps and tents, she said.
When the earthquake hit on Jan. 12, 2010, Patterson was in Nashville. “My phone started ringing about five minutes after the earthquake hit and it didn’t stop for about a month,” she said. “There was tension and worry there in the first week not knowing what was happening.”
|A woman walks past makeshift tents in late November in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Nearly five years after one of the most devastating earthquakes ever to rock the Western Hemisphere, more than 85,000 people still live in dozens of tent camps across Haiti’s expansive earthquake zone. CNS photo/Oscar Leiva, Catholic Relief Services
It was three or four days before Patterson could reach the staff at Matthew 25 House in Port-au-Prince, a hospitality house operated by the Parish Twinning program to give people traveling to Haiti on mission trips a place to stay.
The house was still standing, though several of the rooms were damaged beyond use, Patterson said. People from the neighborhood who had been hurt began showing up at Matthew 25 House within a half hour after the quake looking for medical care, she said.
“They were tearing up pillow cases for bandages,” Patterson said. “They even did a few surgeries on the kitchen table.”
A soccer field next to the house became the site for a tent camp where about 1,500 people ended up living, she said. Matthew 25’s staff set up a mini-clinic and school in the camp. “The staff of Matthew 25 was extremely busy for that first year,” Patterson said.
For Karen Mertens of the Haiti ministry at St. Stephen Church in Hermitage, it was a similar story.
Mertens and the rest of a medical mission team from St. Stephen was scheduled to leave for Haiti and their twinned parish in Petit Goave near the epicenter on Jan. 16.
“Our bags were packed and we were ready to go,” Mertens said. “It was difficult not to go.”
After about eight days, the folks at St. Stephen finally received an e-mail from the associate pastor of their twinned parish, who had been trapped in the rubble for several days. Seven nuns living in a convent at the church died in the earthquake and the pastor was watching as the church collapsed, Mertens said.
The church, which had stood for 204 years, was destroyed, Mertens said. They only thing left standing was the altar. “The whole town was hit hard.”
When the medical mission team was finally able to get to Haiti six months later, people were still living in tents in the streets, too afraid of aftershocks and more earthquakes to sleep in the buildings that were still standing, Mertens said.
The team saw many patients with head injuries or lost limbs, said Mertens, a nurse at Summit Medical Center. Many people had lost relatives in the earthquake and many children were left as orphans being cared for by neighbors, she added.
The situation in Petit Goave is improving, said Mertens, who has visited Haiti every year since 2003. People are no longer living in tents. St. Stephen helped the parish build a new school, and a kitchen that St. Stephen helped pay for should be ready by the time the next medical mission team leaves on Feb. 7, she said.
A metal roof has been erected over the altar and the congregation gathers for open air Masses, Mertens said. “Mass is at 5 every morning and there’s not a chair empty.”
About 310 congregations in North America are twinned with parishes in Haiti, Patterson said. The help they provided after the earthquake is part of the billions of dollars in aid that poured in from around the world to help Haiti. And they are still helping, Patterson said.
More and more, parishes in the Parish Twinning Program are shifting their focus to sustainability projects that help create jobs, Patterson said. They continue to support schools across the country, funding teachers’ salaries, she said, and some are setting up credit programs to give people micro loans. Others are setting up programs to help agriculture and at least half are supporting clean water programs, Patterson said. Some are supporting tree farming to help combat Haiti’s problem with deforestation, she added.
The Visitation Clinic in Petite Riviere de Nippes, which the Parish Twinning Program’s sister organization Visitation Hospital Foundation opened in 2008, hopes to add a surgery center in the coming year, Patterson said. The clinic already has a staff of 28 and sees between 70 and 120 patients a day.