Haiti’s bishops considering next steps in effort to rebuild churches

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Church leaders dedicate Christ the King Church in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in this 2018 file photo. It is among the churches rebuilt by the Partnership for the Reconstruction of the Church in Haiti, or PROCHE, with funds collected largely from U.S. parishioners following the country’s devastating January 2010 earthquake. CNS photo/courtesy Partnership for the Reconstruction of the Church in Haiti

CLEVELAND (CNS) — Churches have been rebuilt, new schools have opened, and some of Haiti’s religious communities have new convents and rectories to call home.

Under a church-led initiative known as PROCHE, the Partnership for the Reconstruction of the Church in Haiti, millions of dollars donated by U.S. parishioners in the wake of the country’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake helped finance dozens of new facilities that replaced church structures destroyed in the disaster.

The new structures signaled a rebirth of sorts for the Haitian Catholic Church, which has suffered alongside Haiti’s citizens since the strong temblor shook the capital of Port-au-Prince and surrounding area. An estimated 230,000 people died and up to 3 million people lost homes or livelihoods.

Beloved Port-au-Prince Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot was among the victims, crushed under debris after being thrown from a balcony by the jolt of the earth’s movement. The vacant shell of the country’s iconic Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral remains a symbol of the suffering.

Progress under PROCHE was particularly successful from 2013 to 2017, as buildings opened and contracts regularly were awarded for new projects, said Jacques Liautaud, Haiti manager at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a PROCHE partner.

“This was the most productive period for PROCHE, I believe,” Liautaud told Catholic News Service.

Overall, PROCHE has completed 43 projects. As of May 20, another 16 were underway.

“PROCHE brought church-sponsored construction to a new level,” said Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, who represents the USCCB on the organization’s steering committee.

PROCHE has been largely funded by the $33 million U.S. parishioners donated in the months after the earthquake. Investments have earned another $3 million, Liautaud said.

Through early 2020, $28 million has been spent on reconstruction projects, leaving about $8 million on account. Of the total, nearly $4 million has been earmarked for a new major seminary, a priority of the Haitian bishops. The old seminary was left in shambles by the earthquake.

That leaves $4 million for priorities to be identified by the PROCHE partners.

What’s ahead depends at least in part on how well the country navigates the political unrest that has disrupted life for nearly two years.

Demonstrations erupted in July 2018 against President Jovenel Moise, who instituted steep hikes in the price of gasoline, diesel and kerosene after ending government subsidies for fossil fuels. The unpopular decision stemmed from an investigation that revealed significant corruption in previous administrations related to how the government used funds from Petrocaribe. The program provides below-market financing for oil for several countries in the Caribbean region.

Led by Moise’s political opponents, the protesters have expanded their demands, calling for the president’s ouster. Periodic demonstrations continued into April, closing streets and forcing people to stay home.

Add to that the restrictions on movement imposed by the Haitian government because of the coronavirus pandemic, and construction becomes difficult to carry out, Stephan Destin, PROCHE director general, told CNS from his office in Port-au-Prince.

Despite the recent slowdown, PROCHE has completed about two-thirds of the priorities identified by the organization’s partners: the bishops’ conferences of Haiti, the U.S. and France; Adveniat, the German bishops’ agency for solidarity with Latin American development agencies; Haiti’s religious orders and the apostolic nuncio to Haiti.

The completed projects include 15 churches, seven rectories, seven convents or residences for religious, five schools, four novitiates, three chapels and two community centers, Destin said.

A dozen churches, a rectory, a chapel and a seminary for a religious congregation, are at various stages of construction, Destin said. Work periods remain sporadic, he said.

Archbishop Launay Saturne of Cap-Haitien, Haiti, president of the Haitian bishops’ conference, welcomed the success of the collaborative effort and the progress that has been made in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.

“For all that has been done, the Catholic Church in Haiti is truly grateful to the sister churches,” he wrote in an email to CNS.

Still, he added, “for the Catholic bishops of Haiti, the assessment of the activities of this structure called PROCHE is rather mixed. The Catholic bishops of Haiti expected more reconstructions made by this structure.”

The bishops’ top priority remains a new major seminary to prepare priests for priesthood.

And there’s the rebuilding of Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral.

Archbishop Wenski, to a certain extent, agreed with his Haitian colleague.

“Sure, we would want much more to be done,” he told CNS. He estimated that damage to church buildings “was probably over $150 million,” so priorities had to be set and proper procedures had to be followed during all phases of construction.

The PROCHE steering committee agreed from the start that protocols be in place to ensure that all structures would follow strong building codes to withstand future earthquakes and that proper accounting procedures were necessary to ensure that donor monies were responsibly spent.

“When PROCHE began, there was a lot of skepticism among even the clergy in Haiti, and I think after 10 years we have a track record that proves the viability of the format that we put into place,” Archbishop Wenski said.

“What PROCHE did was allow the Haitian church to build up its capacity. That’s very important. … That allowed the Haitian church to build significant projects without any waste of effort and waste of resources and waste of money without that capacity being in place” Archbishop Wenski explained.

When PROCHE began in 2010 and its office in Haiti opened in 2011, its partners envisioned the program lasting about a decade. With projects still pending and a contract to be awarded for the seminary, Liautaud expects the program will continue until 2023.

Archbishop Saturne wrote that he recognizes a new structure is needed to continue the still-massive rebuilding effort, and that the success of any future reconstruction program will rely on maintaining alliances with other Catholic episcopal conferences and institutions.

“The Catholic bishops of Haiti would certainly not want to lose their current and usual partners, that is to say the sister churches who have always helped them are currently helping them through this structure set up for reconstruction,” he said. “Catholic bishops would so much like to be able to continue to count on these partners or sister churches … while seeking to add others.”

Archbishop Wenski said that under the pandemic and the unsettled political situation determining the future of church reconstruction will be difficult. Even so, he added, the U.S. bishops are willing to remain a partner with the Haitian church.

“Maybe the U.S. bishops might see fit to do another (parish) collection or may be another way of raising funds for Haiti,” he said. “Obviously, the need is much greater than what the resources (of PROCHE) were.”

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