Perspective: The Church and the Humanitarian Crisis in Haiti

by Tess Daniels


Over the past few decades, the world has watched Haiti go through cycles of violence, corruption, and insurrection. In 2008, food riots led to emergency plans and the dismissal of the president. A cholera outbreak, gang violence, and political protests all contributed to an atmosphere of turmoil in the country. Former presidents were put on trial for corruption and human rights abuses charges. Haiti’s army was disbanded from 1995-2012 for its role in past coups and its history of crime. As recently as February 2019, at least four people were killed and dozens injured in nationwide anti-corruption protests against President Moise and other officials.


This social and political turbulence was all the more exacerbated by devastating natural disasters. The 2010 earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.0, killed approximately 300,000 people when it hit capital city Port-au-Prince and surrounding regions. In addition to recent earthquakes, Haiti has also experienced extremely destructive hurricanes. By the end of 2004, four hurricanes had flooded whole towns and wrecked infrastructure. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy left at least 20,000 people homeless. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew killed hundreds and destroyed thousands of homes.


In the midst of all this turmoil, the Catholic Church in Haiti used its own influence and resources for the aid of the impoverished and destitute. The Church works to provide adequate healthcare, especially in rural areas. Adam Kerrigan, The Catholic Medical Mission Board’s senior vice president for partnerships, described the importance of collaboration in these efforts: “We work with the bishops’ conference, with the ministry of health, and with the community together.”


In 2017, the organization opened the Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan Center for Health on Haiti’s southeastern coast, providing health care for 50,000 Haitian citizens who otherwise would have had to travel hours to the nearest hospital. Kerrigan describes the importance of serving rural areas, noting that after natural disasters, most of the aid is directed towards the capital of Port-au-Prince. Kerrigan lists maternal and infant well-being, as well as providing clean, potable water, as being among the first of the hospital’s priorities.


According to the U.S Department of State, Catholics make up about 80% of the native Haitian population. They are far from immune to the cycles of poverty and destruction. After the 2010 earthquake, the cathedral in Port-au-Prince was destroyed and Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot was killed, as were dozens of priests, nuns, and seminarians. Bishop Thomas Wenski, in an interview after the 2010 earthquake, attested to the pervasiveness of the Church’s influence in Haiti. The bishop told of an old Haitian joke, in which a minister of public works gets stuck in the mud in a rural area of the community. The minister curses the small town and asks “Don’t they have a parish priest here?” Because the understanding, the bishop said, “[is] that it would be the priest that would be making sure that the road was passable…The church has to rebuild its places of worship, to be sure. But it also has to rebuild its broader infrastructure of clinics, of schools, of the radio.”


The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has been instrumental in the reconstruction of the Catholic Church in Haiti. After the 2010 earthquake, the bishops held a special collection for earthquake assistance in every diocese in the United States, collecting more than $85 million in a single weekend. The bishops delegated 60% of these funds to Catholic Relief Services for its more short-term work of supplying food, water, and medical aid, and the remaining 40% for longer-term infrastructure reconstruction projects. In late 2011, the USCCB created the Partnership for Church Reconstruction, which eventually received over $22 million in grants for more than 50 reconstruction projects.


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