Letter From Haiti: A Church Building in Ruin

Madeleine Philbin is regional director for CRS-Midwest. She is based in Chicago. You can read previously published sections of this series here.

I first saw Sacre Coeur–first stepped “off campus”–not with Farid, but with Mary, a young colleague here. I went to church with her on Sunday morning. We drove in her car. We left about 8 a.m. and there was no traffic really. (Credit Sunday, credit the World Cup.) I saw more of the world—more of the mountains (hills) encircling us.

Madeleine Philbin

Madeleine Philbin. Photo by Richard Anderson for CRS

Looking at street signs (there were few) we first started down John Brown and then turned on Martin Luther King. Another was Jean Paul 2. We ended up at Champs de Mars, where we didn’t want to be. Picture Grant Park with every inch a makeshift shelter. I know it was once a park because in dead center I could see the monument of someone on horseback. Mary was uneasy about finding ourselves there and called Sister V. who we were meeting up with, and she directed us back to the road that led to the church. (Btw, CRS contribution to Champs de Mars has been to provide latrines.)

Suddenly we find the church, Sacre Coeur. There it stood or half-stood—destroyed. It reminded me of a church I just saw in Berlin, left partially destroyed from the war. As I went to take a photo and looked through my viewfinder, it reminded me of the photos I was just taking in Ireland of the ruins of a long ago church. As my niece and I were taking photos there in Ireland I remember wondering who had once celebrated mass here?

But this wasn’t a “ruin”, and the answer as to “who” was right there, because (large, white, solid) tents have now been set up in the courtyard, and the pews have been brought from the damaged church, under the tents, another tent for the altar, another for the choir. There were a couple of hundred people there against the backdrop of the collapsed church building, stained glass and all. The mass was in French, the priest, Haitian. I saw the priest drive up, and then go into a sort of a trailer that served as sacristy, where he changed into his vestments for mass.

We met up with an American nun there (she suffered a broken shoulder in the earthquake, went back to States but has just returned. She’s 73.) We drove a few minutes to her house where she lives with 3 others (Spanish sister, Haitian postulant and pre-postulant). The house was damaged and is being repaired, which will probably take another month or so. Meanwhile they sleep in tents (camping tents) outdoors, under a tarp. My colleague had sought her out, “it’s good to be around religious people” she said. It’s nourishing to her in some way in her own struggle to live with/ having lived through this earthquake.

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