FARMINGTON---In a time of pandemic, the commitment of many Maine parishes to supporting people they will never meet in places they will never see has perhaps never been more needed or been more praiseworthy. Initiatives across the state help struggling communities and schools across the world, including in Haiti, one of the poorest countries on earth and challenged by natural disasters and political instability.
“We have a vital and ongoing connection with Haitian people through an effort called Parish Twinning,” said Fr. Paul Dumais, pastor of both St. Rose of Lima in Jay and St. Joseph Parish in Farmington. “Nearly 20 years ago, St. Joseph was paired with St. Laurent Parish in the Diocese of Les Cayes, Haiti, and St. Rose of Lima joined the relationship in 2005.”
The St. Laurent Parish consists of the main church, secondary and primary schools, and satellite mission chapels.
“The opportunity was introduced to us by Fr. Roger Chabot, who was our pastor at the time. We reached out to St. Rose of Lima Parish and invited them to join us. Since then, participation and members have come from both parishes,” said Janet Brackett, chair of the parishes’ Haiti Ministry Committee and a parishioner at St. Joseph.
At the start of the initiative, once a month, volunteers collected donations for their “sister parish” in Haiti as parishioners left Mass. Soon, interest in offering aid grew and the parishes’ commitment evolved into a monthly second collection in the pews. Regular visits to St. Laurent began in 2008 as parishioners paid their own way to make the journey (funds collected for St. Laurent are never used for the travel of organizers). During their time in Haiti, the Maine parishioners would purchase Haitian crafts to sell at holiday fairs, community events, and even local galleries, with the proceeds benefitting the Haitian parish. As the donations continued to grow in size, so did the list of ideas to help.
“A couple from St. Rose sponsored an annual breakfast with all of the proceeds going to St. Laurent,” said Brackett. “For several years, the youth ministry at St. Rose raised money as part of their Lenten program. After the Haitian earthquake in 2010, we partnered with the local rotary club to do a dinner and silent auction event and after Hurricane Matthew, we raffled a handmade lap quilt and sold direct trade Haitian-grown coffee as part of a fundraising program.”
“Thanks to the generosity of both parishes, we are able to send $2,000 per month to supplement teacher salaries, cover the salaries of medical clinic staff, and provide for other parish needs,” said Fr. Dumais.
Ordinarily, an extra $1,000 is sent at this time of year to provide a Christmas celebration for poor children.
“In light of recent events and the current situation (earthquake recovery, assassination of the president, gang violence, and other instability), the parish increased that to $3,000 this year,” said Fr. Dumais.
The ministry even has its own Facebook page. In 2013, the Jay and Farmington parishes started to utilize a container shipment program. Parishioners collect needed items and send them to Nashville where they are packed in 40-foot containers and shipped to Haiti, unpacked, and distributed to St. Laurent and other parishes.
“The first time we did this, we collected items to furnish a small community clinic that we had financed; we sent exam tables, scales, file cabinets, office chairs, crutches, canes, blood pressure cuffs, a hand-held fetal sonograph, and lots of over-the-counter medicines,” said Brackett. “I love the fact that we can see the difference our parishes are making in St. Laurent with a clinic that is operational, run by Haitian health care providers, and the parish and schools thriving.”
“When you go down there, you can see the improvements that the money and support bring about,” says Paul Anderson, who traveled to Haiti from Farmington seven years ago. “I think that’s why the people in the parish continue to donate so much. They see concrete evidence.”
Trips to Haiti have also inspired many parishioners at St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Sanford, which has been “twinned” with St. Anthony the Hermit Parish in Lori, Haiti, for over six years.
In 2021, the parish donated nearly $20,000 in food packets to Haitians in need, an extraordinary number when you consider that St. Anthony the Hermit Parish receives approximately $70 per month in collections. Donations from parishioners in Sanford helped start a daily school lunch program for 400 children.
“Haiti has exploded with gang violence, political instability, and a severe food shortage,” Fr. Frede, pastor of St. Anthony the Hermit, wrote in a letter to St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish. “May Christ, the Risen One, be a blessing and a blessing to you in this noble task of helping the needy. I, as the director of this said establishment, am very grateful to you.”
“For many years, the parish has helped St. Anthony the Hermit Parish through financial assistance ranging from rebuilding a church after a hurricane to building a pedestrian bridge over a river that enables people in the poor area to reach town. It’s incredible,” said Fr. Bill Labbe, pastor of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish. “It’s a devotion and commitment that is clearly rooted in a very deep faith.”
For over a decade, St. Patrick Church in Newcastle has held an annual dinner for the residents of Gros-Morne, Haiti, to provide school supplies and lunches for children (only $1 per week to support a student), fund a new poultry project, and pay for building materials to help repair damage from earthquakes. Attendees have the opportunity to pledge support to different projects. Initially, the focus of assistance was destitute refugees fleeing the effects of the earthquake in Port-au-Prince. Over the years, the focus of the fundraising has shifted to projects targeted at bringing social and economic opportunity to the poorest residents of the town.
Holy Spirit parishioners in Wells and Kennebunk have assembled hundreds of birthing kits and 400 newborn kits for Haitian women. Each of the birthing kits included alcohol wipes, gauze pads, a nasal aspirator, soap, a scalpel, a plastic sheet, sanitary pads, underwear, and medical gloves, while newborn kits contained a washcloth, cloth diapers, pins, a changing pad, a receiving blanket, and onesies.
“Women in many areas of Haiti often have no option other than to give birth in unsanitary conditions. The kits that were assembled provide materials necessary to offer more sanitary circumstances for a mother and her baby during and after birth,” said Mary Colombo of Holy Spirit Parish.
“The volunteers were so enthusiastic and happy to be involved,” said Leana Regan-Dolan of Holy Spirit Parish. “It was evident in the smiles on the faces of everyone who work to assemble the kits!”
In addition, Holy Spirit Parish, along with Christ the King Parish in Skowhegan at St. Michael Parish in Augusta, have filled hundreds and hundreds of “Boxes of Joy” that provide Christmas presents to children in need in Haiti and other countries.
The Sacred Heart/St. Dominic Parish Social Justice & Peace Commission in Portland holds collections and special events to raise money for Christ the King Parish School in Morne Rouge, Haiti. Over 200 children attend the school and money from the fundraisers help pay the salaries of teachers and fund the school’s daily meal.
“The students are fed a simple rice and beans meal at school every day, cooked on an open fire next to the school,” said Anne Johnson of Sacred Heart/St. Dominic Parish. “Sometimes, it is their only meal. Our ‘Haiti Project’ began helping Christ the King Parish School in 2004. At that time, the pastor, Pere Gabriel Julmice, was superintendent of Catholic schools in Haiti. He started a parish school holding classes in the corners of their church.”
The donations from Portland made an immediate difference in Morne Rouge.
“Our donations enabled him to build one classroom after another,” said Johnson. “Now there are six grades and a kindergarten.”
In addition to the collection, the parish holds “Empty Bowl Suppers” at Sacred Heart Church where soup and bread are donated by local restaurants and bakeries. Attendees take home their empty bowls as a reminder to be in solidarity with the people of Haiti and others living in extreme poverty who have nothing to put in their bowls. The parish also organizes an annual yard sale, a flatbread pizza fundraiser, and other events to raise money.
A special collection held at Catholic churches in Maine in September raised over $78,000 to provide assistance after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti in mid-August. In the weeks that followed, Maine Catholics gave to immediate aid programs through Catholic Relief Services and the Pontifical Mission Societies. The special collection served a different purpose. Hundreds of Catholic churches and buildings, including the country's Catholic cathedral, were damaged.
“All proceeds from the collection were turned over to the president of the Haitian Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Chibly Langlois, for use by the Church in rebuilding churches, schools, convents, and rectories,” said Bishop Robert Deeley.
The incredible support from Maine parishes has made a real difference in the lives of countless people. Service and love that will continue in tough times, even in the face of a pandemic.
“I can only speak for myself, but the opportunity to be involved in the Haiti Ministry has been a tremendous gift,” said Brackett. “I have gotten to know so many wonderful people in Haiti and in my own backyard. I am thankful for the opportunity to answer God’s call to serve those in need, but it always seems to me that I receive much, much more.”