February 4, 2010 // Uncategorized

Despite collapsed buildings, Haitian parish aids quake victims

By Dennis Sadowski

Redemptorist Father Abellard Thomas stands outside the destroyed St. Gerard Church in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Feb. 2. The church is one of thousands of buildings in the Haitian capital that collapsed during the 45-second earthquake Jan. 12. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (CNS) — Not much remains of St. Gerard Church, located on a steep hill in Port-au-Prince, but Redemptorist Father Abellard Thomas says it’s his parish, and he wants to keep it functioning as much as possible.

The church is little more than a pile of bricks and metal, one of thousands of buildings in the Haitian capital that collapsed during the 45-second earthquake Jan. 12. The parish’s school crumpled as well: It still entombs the bodies of dozens of students and teachers.

Father Thomas said 200 people died in the school, which bears scorch marks from fires that recovery workers set to mask the smell of the decaying bodies. Each day, family and friends of those who died stop by to visit the collapsed school, paying their respects and praying for those who lost their lives.

Their anguish is his anguish, Father Thomas said.

The priest is also mourning the loss of two of the six sisters who lived in the parish convent. The two members of the Companions of Jesus died while teaching at St. Rose School in Leogane, about 15 miles west of the capital and closer to the quake’s epicenter. The other four sisters are fine, but their residence is unusable.

Despite the sadness he feels, Father Thomas has turned the parish grounds into a registration site for people seeking assistance from the World Food Program. Aid workers from the Paris-based Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development work out of the parish compound, giving food-entitlement cards to as many as 1,700 people a day.

“People come here for comfort,” Father Thomas told Catholic News Service Feb. 2. “They come here for prayer, for help, for support.

“In a difficult situation, people feel they can get help from God,” he added.

Before the earthquake, the parish had 10,000 members. The three Redemptorists assigned to the parish celebrated five Masses every Sunday. At Mass Jan. 31 in the parish courtyard, a little more than 300 people worshipped.

Father Thomas, 36, is in his first assignment as a pastor; he came to St. Gerard six months ago. He can only guess how many parishioners died in the quake, but he knows thousands lost their homes. Some are among the 700 people who have set up a rickety camp in a nearby park. He celebrated Mass at the park for the first time Jan. 31.

The priest said he expects that St. Gerard will be rebuilt some day. Right now, though, his emphasis is on being present for people in need. If the best the parish can do is help coordinate the distribution of cards and food under the auspices of the United Nations, Father Thomas is willing to help.

The food is a godsend, he said, because people are hungry and unable to buy much to feed themselves and their families.

In the neighborhood below the church, a vocational school for older students was in full session when the earth quaked. The six-story building collapsed in a matter of seconds, trapping dozens of people. The exact death count is uncertain.

What remains of the school looks like a stack of slightly lopsided pancakes. Floors above crunched onto the floors below, leaving a 30-foot heap of rubble. On the top floor, exposed to the hot mid-day sun, toppled chairs are aligned in still-discernable rows.

Father Thomas knows the pain runs deep in his neighborhood. He is not sure how Port-au-Prince will ever recover, but he is hopeful that the world will partner with Haiti to rebuild the country.

“When there’s trouble, the world, the United States, are good friends,” he said.

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