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Episcopalians begin to rebuild Haitian cathedral one 'brick' at a time

Church-wide fund-raising effort gets underway

[Episcopal News Service] Since the early days after many parts of Haiti were devastated late in the afternoon of Jan. 12, 2010 by a magnitude-7 earthquake, Episcopalians have been giving their prayers, expertise and money to the country.

And in the latest of those efforts, the Episcopal Church on the first anniversary of the quake formally inaugurated a church-wide fundraising campaign called Rebuild our Church in Haiti

The first step in that rebuilding effort will be the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti's Holy Trinity Cathedral complex in Port-au-Prince, according to an Episcopal Church Foundation press release.

The complex once housed Holy Trinity Music School, Holy Trinity Professional School, primary and secondary schools, and a convent of the Sisters of St. Margaret, as well as the church with its world-renowned murals depicting biblical stories in Haitian motifs, which were crafted by some of the best-known Haitian painters of the 20th century.

In October, the Episcopal Church's Executive Council reaffirmed its February challenge to the church to raise money to help the diocese begin to rebuild. Duracin has asked that the initial effort be focused on the cathedral for its profound symbolism not just for the diocese but also for the country. The council designated the foundation to coordinate the appeal.

The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe and the Diocese of Eastern Michigan are two early supporters of rebuilding efforts. The money they have raised for rebuilding the cathedral complex has been added to the Rebuild our Church in Haiti campaign.

In Europe, the effort that began last year was rooted in Bishop Pierre Whalon's deep ties in Haiti, according to Anne Swardson, chair of the Mission and Outreach Committee at the American Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Paris. In addition, she said, there was the French connection between the two cathedrals and the fact that they share the same name.

"Another thing we have in common with Haiti is that we're a piece of the Episcopal Church outside the borders the United States so we're ideally suited to kick off this effort to rebuild the cathedral," said Swardson in a telephone interview Jan. 12.

While many people felt moved to help from the moment just after the earthquake, Swardson said the committee held off until it became obvious in consultation with Haitian Episcopalians how best to channel those efforts. When it became clear that rebuilding the Haitian cathedral ought to be the focus, Swardson said, someone suggested that they sell bricks to symbolize the effort.

Swardson said she recalled having some cardboard brick toys left over from her son's childhood days. When she returned from her son's closet with one of the toy bricks, the mission and outreach committee members who were meeting at her house were energized by "this physical manifestation of the need of the cathedral" and the campaign coalesced.

A committee member contacted the brick seller, Lillian Vernon Corp., and convinced the company to donate 480 of their toy bricks for the campaign to use as symbols of donors’ contributions, Swardson said.

The campaign kicked off Sept. 12 when Diocese of Haiti Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin visited the cathedral. The bricks were sold one Sunday each month through the end of 2010. As contributors bought bricks, they piled them around the old baptistry in the cathedral. Thus far close to $23,400 worth of bricks has been sold, including a $10,000 anonymous donation. One more sale day is set for Jan. 23.

Swardson advised those who participate in the appeal to share information about their efforts.

"The more that different churches and cathedrals and the whole community can know about what individual efforts are, the better off and the more enthusiastic everybody will be," she said. "The more people know and the more that is learned about these efforts, the more we can get done."

The appeal's website will soon include resources for dioceses and congregations to launch their own campaigns, according to the foundation's release.

In Eastern Michigan, Bishop Todd Ousley challenged the diocese Oct. 9 at its annual convention to raise $100,000 for the appeal. Telling the convention that the amount was equal to $33.33 for every one of the average 3,000 people who worship in the diocese each Sunday, he placed a check for $167 in the convention offertory plate for himself, his wife Ann, and their three sons, Ian, Dae and Josh.

The next Saturday when Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori presided at a diocese-wide Eucharist, the offertory was given to the Haiti appeal, Ousley said.

About half of the 50 parishes and missions in the diocese have raised small and large amounts and Ousley said many of the remaining ones are planning fund-raising efforts during Lent and Easter. Thus far, he said, diocesan members have raised $58,000 and have a pledge for an additional $20,000.

"This is really something that is coming from the heart and generosity of the people of Eastern Michigan," Ousley said. "They're touched by how Haiti has been affected and the vision that they have of rebuilding the church there."

Ousley said that Eastern Michigan is not wealthy but is instead "socio-economically depressed, demographically in decline and each of our congregations is under stress."

"They're reaching deep and giving out of a sense of abundance that's really exciting to see," he said.

"This is a diocese built on relationships. We have good relationships with one another and we understand we're in relationship with our sisters and brothers way beyond our borders," he said. "The message from Eastern Michigan is that we invite the rest of the dioceses of the Episcopal Church to get on board and reach deep into their hearts and give generously as well."

The rebuilding appeal is taking place against the backdrop of the constant challenges Haitians face. Since the earthquake, Haiti was dealt a glancing blow by a hurricane, rocked by post-presidential election violence and burdened by a rare cholera outbreak which the Haitian Health Ministry said had killed 3,481 people as of Dec. 29 and sickened more than 157,000, according to a United Nations report.

"Haitians today see the 2010 earthquake as the one -- and only one chance -- to build a new and better Haiti," Whalon said in the foundation's release. "If we help them rebuild, the world will also get a new and better Haiti, and we will all benefit -- especially the United States. If we do not, the same old Haiti will continue to suffer, and us along with them."

Whalon also wrote Jan. 12 about the appeal and the Episcopal Church in Haiti's role in rebuilding the country here.

One of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church's 12 overseas dioceses, Haiti is numerically the largest diocese in the church with more than 100,000 Episcopalians in 200 congregations, parishes, missions and preaching stations who before the quake were served by just 32 active priests, nine retired priests, six deacons, three nuns and 17 seminarians.

Prior to the earthquake the diocese ran a network of 254 schools that taught more than 80,000 Haitians from preschool to university level. Other institutions included a school for handicapped children, a trade school, a music school, a two-year business school, a nursing school that granted the first baccalaureate degrees in the country in January 2009, a seminary and a university. A renowned philharmonic orchestra and children's choir were based at the cathedral and both are still performing. The diocese also provided medical clinics, development projects and micro-financing efforts.

In November a report released during a meeting of many of the diocese's current mission partners predicted that the first phase of post-earthquake reconstruction and development for the entire diocese will cost close to $197 million. The Plan for the Reconstruction and Development of the Diocese of Haiti (Phase 1) said that the $196,861,926 cost estimate includes a $24,319,400 "local contribution," thus leaving $172,542,526 to come from outside sources.

As the Rebuild our Church in Haiti project gets underway, the foundation said, nearly half the dioceses in the Episcopal Church have begun organizing volunteers or otherwise making plans to participate. Some of the other early supporters include:

  • the dioceses of Vermont, Eau Claire, Michigan, Oregon, Central New York, and Western Louisiana, which have already sent convention offerings designated for rebuilding the cathedral;
  • the Diocese of Delaware, which is making the appeal the focus of its Easter bishop's appeal;
  • the dioceses of Tennessee, Mississippi, Ohio and Southern Virginia, which will announce the appeal as new diocesan projects at their annual conventions in January and February.

In addition, individuals can follow the lead of the Paris cathedral and "buy a brick" here.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.

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