By Erik Oland, SJ
It has been a while since I wrote a piece for Companions about the experience of one of my formal visitations. That is, the Provincial spends much of his time on the road visiting regions of the province and meeting with Jesuits and partners in order to gauge the pulse of the mission. May I remind readers that Haiti comes under the jurisdiction of the Canadian province. My most recent visitation to Haiti has prompted me to write a reflection on the experience.
It had been three years since I visited in person, during which time the world has lived through a global pandemic and Haiti has been plunged into deep chaos, especially in the area of the capital, Port-au-Prince. In conversation with the superior for the Haitian Jesuits, Fr. Jean Denis Saint-Félix, I decided that it was important for the Haitian Jesuit to receive a visit from their provincial, if at all possible. Luckily it was felt that a visit to our Jesuit community and works in the northern city of Ouanaminthe would be viable and relatively safe if I arrived via the Dominican Republic. And so the dates were set.
Today, in addition to the novitiate where there are 6 novices, we have the parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the migrant service Solidarité Fwontalye, and a number of Foie et Joie schools with an associated teacher training institute, ESPECIL.
I flew from Montréal to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic on March 16 and then travelled overland to the northern Dominican city of Dajabon before crossing the border into Haiti. I landed in the border city of Ouanaminthe on the morning of March 18, staying at our Jesuit novitiate there. The novitiate, for example, used to be located on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince but with increasing insecurity caused by local gangs, the wise decision to move up north was made in late 2021 (the former novitiate was recently overrun by the gangs and is lost to us, at least until order is restored and we might be able to claim it back).
I do not want to dwell on the insecurities of Port-au-Prince but rather on the burgeoning work that is happening in the north. We have had a presence in the area of Ouanaminthe since about 2001, but our main activities have been in the capital city. Today, in addition to the novitiate where there are 6 novices, we have the parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the migrant service Solidarité Fwontalye, and a number of Foie et Joie schools with an associated teacher training institute, ESPECIL.
All of this to say, my experience of visiting Haiti gave me some close hand knowledge of the societal breakdown but, more than that, also direct experience of the work of the Haitian Jesuits with the people of this small city and its surrounding countryside.
Not to give you the impression that everything is at a total standstill in the capital, in my Zoom meetings with the superiors who are still residing in Port-au-Prince, I learned that despite the precarious situation the mission continues, even at a slower pace, at schools, the university and the spirituality centre.
All of this to say, my experience of visiting Haiti gave me some close hand knowledge of the societal breakdown but, more than that, also direct experience of the work of the Haitian Jesuits with the people of this small city and its surrounding countryside. The parish is alive and thriving, the novices are gaining rich pastoral experience, the schools continue to provide exemplary education for children from poor families, and the migrant centre is entering an important new phase of its development.
We hope and pray that the overall situation will start to improve. In the meantime, however, the mission continues in the north and a few other parts of the country in positive ways with a horizon that is more open than one might otherwise have thought.
Notre Dame d’Haiti. Pray for us.