December 5, 2014

Partnership help Morris parish build community in Haiti

Students at St. Francis Xavier School in Gandou, Haiti, enjoy a meal made available by the school lunch program sponsored by St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Morris. (Submitted photo)

Students at St. Francis Xavier School in Gandou, Haiti, enjoy a meal made available by the school lunch program sponsored by St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Morris. (Submitted photo)

By Mike Krokos

MORRIS—The children’s smiles and waves are among the first things that draw the pilgrims.

Even the adults greet the foreigners with a kindness that is sincere and heartfelt.

But the photographs that the visitors from Indiana show from their mission trips to Haiti share another story: Extreme poverty, severe malnutrition, skin diseases, other serious health issues and a lack of infrastructure that cripple a rural community still recovering from the effects of a devastating earthquake that shook the country in 2010.

Since the fall of 2005, members of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Morris have had a twinning relationship with St. Francis Xavier Parish in Gandou, which is approximately 40 miles—but a six-to 10-hour drive—from the capital city of Port-au-Prince, where Indiana pilgrims fly into, then use vehicles to get to the isolated, mountainous community in southwest Haiti.

The increasingly popular practice of “twinning,” or partnering a U.S. parish with one in the developing world, enables diverse communities to get to know their brothers and sisters in Christ.

‘Floored by their poverty’

Twice a year, St. Anthony Parish leads a group of missionaries—including some from nearby parishes who take part in their ministry—to Gandou, where they provide medical care, food, educational and financial assistance, and build spiritual friendships with a community that reflects why Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Eighty percent of the people live under the poverty line, and 54 percent live in abject poverty. Two-thirds of Haitians are unemployed.

St. Anthony’s outreach is one of many twinning efforts of parishes in the archdiocese with parishes in Haiti.

“When you go to Haiti the first time, it just blows you away,” said Joe Rennekamp, a member of St. Anthony Parish, who with his wife, Jennifer, has made the pilgrimage several times. “You leave here thinking, ‘This place is a third the size of Indiana, they’ve got some problems, we’ll go down and fix it all up real quick, and be done with it.’ You go down, and you’re floored by the poverty, and how crippling it is.”

There is no access to clean water, and the rocky soil that abounds in Gandou makes farming, which provides a living for many of the population, a challenge. About 10,000 people live in the village and surrounding area, and the medical assistance that some pilgrims provide is necessary because the nearest doctor is a five-hour walk from the village, and the nearest hospital is a six-hour walk. It is very difficult for sick patients to reach care. Many people in the area suffer needlessly—some even die—from easily treatable conditions.

Dr. Mary McCullough, a member of nearby St. Mary Parish in Greensburg, has been travelling to Gandou yearly since 2007, bringing her medical expertise to a community that sorely needs it.

“Seeing the extreme poverty and the poor medical condition of patients, the malnutrition of kids, that’s something I had learned about but I had never seen,” she said of her first visit there. “There are certain things you see with severe, severe malnutrition, and you saw it over and over again [in Gandou]. It wasn’t very isolated. I think that was the thing that struck me the most. … That, and things like scabies and other skin infections.”

Dentists are part of the medical team, too. Like doctors and nurses, they see hundreds of patients—many with serious dental issues—during the eight- or nine-day pilgrimages to Gandou.

Since they cannot be there year-round, St. Anthony now funds a full-time Hatian nurse who operates the clinic they opened in the village, and pays for the salaries of five full-time local health workers, too. Because there is a high infant mortality rate, the parish also funded the training for 25 midwives.

Sponsoring children in a school of faith

Addressing educational needs is also a priority.

Through its outreach, St. Anthony sponsors 155 of the 280 students who attend the parish’s elementary school. The Indiana parish sponsors the salaries of six teachers there, and sponsor three local youths, now in their final year of university studies in Port-au-Prince. Once they get their education degrees, those three will return to Gandou to help offer a high school curriculum.

Currently, it costs $135 per year to sponsor one elementary school student.

“Seventy-five dollars pays for tuition, books and for the uniform for one child,” explained Jennifer Rennekamp, “and an additional $60 provides them food [during school] for a year. For many of the children, that will be their only meal of the day.”

Ed King, a member of nearby St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Milan, made his first mission trip to Gandou in March of 2010.

A retired educator, he said the journeys have had a profound influence on him.

“Even though they are poor … I remember how friendly they were, and that was refreshing,” he said of his initial visit. “It was life-changing. It gave me a whole different perspective on looking at life.

“It’s made me wonder about where I put my money,” he continued. “With these school programs, it just opens the opportunity [to help others].”

Rebuilding their church

Faith and family are at the heart of the Gandou community, and that faith is tested every day.

“It’s so hard to make sense of the suffering there,” Joe Rennekamp added. “Their trust in God is far beyond ours.”

“Family is everything to them,” Ed King added.

The situation in Gandou only got worse when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook Haiti in January of 2010. One of every three homes in the village was crushed or damaged by the quake. So was Francis Xavier Church, located in the Diocese of Jacnel, where the people of Gandou gather to worship.

The cost to repair the church is $230,000. St. Anthony has raised $100,000 and hired local people in Gandou to begin to rehabilitate it.

Nearly five years after the earthquake, there is still no new roof on the damaged church, but St. Anthony members are hopeful donors will help with fundraising efforts to complete the repairs.

“This church is extremely important to them,” Joe Rennekamp said. “The church is the center of education for their kids, for their spiritual worship, for their social gatherings, for everything. Their whole life is built around the church, as it should be.”

The people of Gandou will walk in the dark on Sunday morning for two hours to get to church, carrying a chair with them to sit on during the two-and-a-half hour liturgy.

“They come to Mass every week,” Joe Rennekamp added.

‘God gives abundantly, but he doesn’t share’

It is commonplace to see women and children walking up and down steep hills with five-gallon water buckets on their heads to bring back to their families.

Farmers do their best but struggle to feed their families because of the poor, eroded soil on the mountains.

“It is amazing how hard-working the people are,” Jennifer Rennekamp said.

Yet, suffering is a staple of the people of Gandou.

“There is a Haitian proverb that says: ‘God gives abundantly, but he doesn’t share,’ ” Joe Rennekamp said. “What that means is that God has put enough resources on this world that everybody can have the basic necessities that they need. It’s all here. There’s plenty for everyone, but he left it up to us to share it, and that’s where it’s gone wrong.

“When I go [on these trips], I realize God is clearly calling us to help these people.”

Pilgrimages affect people in different ways, Jennifer Rennekamp noted.

“I think it’s really easy to go, especially on your first trip or two, to come back, [and] your whole take home is: ‘Wow, I’m really blessed,’ and you’re really grateful,” she said. “But then when you get more into it, it turns into more: ‘Wow, I’m really blessed, so I must give back.’

“We’re all called to feed the poor, to give water to the thirsty, to do whatever,” she added. “Not everyone is called to continue working in Haiti, but everyone is called to do something, to give somewhere.”

McCullough agreed. “This ministry allows so many people to give,” she said. “This is a way people can share their abundance. I think it’s making such a huge difference in this small, little corner of the world.”

Looking to January … and beyond

When a group of St. Anthony missionaries return at the end of January, they will be met by four or five interpreters who will help translate Creole, the language spoken in Gandou, and three to four Haitian dentists who will help with that ministry.

Donations are being accepted to help the ministry. One-hundred percent of the money collected goes directly to the St. Francis Xavier outreach program. The trips are also open to anyone of high school age (with a parent) or older who is willing to pay their own way—as all missionaries do.

The world they experience will probably be like nothing they have ever seen. And any donations to the effort have a tremendous impact.

“[It’s unbelievable], the magnitude of the suffering that is happening an hour-and-a-half off the coast of Florida,” Joe Rennekamp said.

“We don’t need one great big donor, we need a whole bunch of small donors—$5 here or $10 there makes a huge difference,” he continued. “It lessens the suffering down there when they know they have someone that cares for them. … It gives them hope, and that hope may be all they have for the future.”

As for the future, it is not only about hope, but building community. And encouraging other parishes to do what St. Anthony Parish is doing.

“Our goal is to help build economic development and education [in Gandou] … but also here in the States, to help keep spreading the word about Haiti and how a little parish here in Morris, Indiana, can have a sister parish,” Joe Rennekamp said. “I think every parish in the United States can have a sister parish. … If there’s anything we can do to help people get started, help them … doing this, that would be great.”

(For more information on St. Anthony of Padua’s Haiti outreach, visit If you’d like to make a tax-deductible financial donation, mail it to: St. Anthony Haiti Ministry, P.O. Box 3, Morris, IN, 47033. Please write “Haiti” on the check memo line, and specify if your donation is for a specific project. Call 812-934-6218 for more information.)

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