By Vince LaBarbera
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 80 percent of its 9.7 million residents living in poverty. Ninety-five percent are black with the median age at 21.4. The capital city of Port-au-Prince already was battling economic and social challenges when deadly Hurricane Katrina hit Haiti and the Gulf region in 2005. But after the massive earthquake struck just over two years ago on Jan. 12, 2010, the result was utter devastation.
It’s estimated 300,000 were killed in the earthquake. Another 3 million people were affected through displacement, loss of family members and jobs. Deplorable living conditions, a surge in deadly diseases and countless abandoned and orphaned children have translated into an ongoing number of deaths.
In a hospital refrigerated storage unit in Tabarre, as well as in the city morgue in Port-au-Prince, decaying bodies are stacked several feet high, awaiting being hauled once a week on flatbed trucks where each person is wrapped in a burial pall, blessed and buried in a shallow, hand-dug grave in a garden overlooking the blue Caribbean Sea. Some 10,000 have been laid to rest. And the bodies keep coming.
The name of the burial area at Titanyen, outside Port-au-Prince, translates to “Less Than Nothing.” The site contains the bodies of those initially killed in the earthquake as well as 30,000 Haitians murdered during President François Duvalier’s regime (1964-1971).
Even though they live nearly 2,000 miles away, for the last few months people in Chicago Heights, Ill., have joined with others from throughout the south suburban Chicago region in shipping everything from shoes, saxophones, supplies and even school buses to Haiti. It’s a trail of goods, money and compassion to help a country in desperate need.
Sister Madonna Rougeah of the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration — whose Provincial House is in Mishawaka — is among the volunteers within the Archdiocese of Chicago. As vice president of mission integration at Franciscan St. James Hospital and Health Center in Chicago Heights, she not only assists the people of the social-economic depressed area known as East Heights, but also is trying to help the stricken Haitian people. Working recently with Elizabeth Wisnasky, affectionately called “Liz Wiz,” who for 42 years has organized an annual collection of food packages, toys, bedding and clothing for the local poor at Thanksgiving and Christmas, Sister Madonna was overwhelmed when witnessing what Wisnasky also is doing to help “bury the dead” in Haiti.
“Liz is organizing burial-pall workshops, decorating them with Christian words, pictures and religious symbols for the many babies who are dying at the rate of about 80-100 per week,” Sister Madonna said. Several volunteer workshops at Lutheran and Catholic churches throughout the region are creating burial palls for the hundreds of infants and children awaiting burial.
“From five to 25 children are placed in a single burial bag,” said Sister Madonna. “Each child is covered with a burial pall, over his or her heart, created and decorated by volunteers in respect for the life of the little individual.” Burial cloths are made from Velcro diapers, girls’ sundresses and pillow cases for the estimated 26,000 unclaimed dead. Volunteers sew or draw religious words and symbols on the make-shift palls to provide a prayerful petition on behalf of the deceased.
“If you are able to sit and sew, make a stencil, paint or draw something, or attach a Christmas card depicting Jesus or Mary, you can help,” Sister Madonna stressed. “The need is there and it’s spreading by word of mouth,” she said. The people of Haiti, especially these little babies, capture your heart, she added.
Sister Agnes Marie Regan, a Sister of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration who is hostess of the TV Mass in South Bend for the diocese, is one of the volunteers.
“I got involved because I like to sew for relaxation and Sister Madonna asked if I’d like to help the women she knows in Chicago Heights who are working on this project,” said Sister Agnes. She sewed several palls from little-girls’ dresses, and recruited volunteers from St. Therese Parish, Fort Wayne, who designed about 35 pillow cases with Christian words and symbols using permanent felt-tip markers. Any group or individual in the diocese who would like to engage in this heartfelt project can contact Sister Agnes at (574) 259-5427.
Sister Duane Ankenbruck of the Mishawaka Provincialate, once met Father Rick Frechette, a Passionist priest in Haiti, who is spearheading the proper burial of each individual.
“I met him in Honduras,” Sister Duane said. “He’s a wonderful man and priest. He respects their souls.”
A few people, some of them Haitian, reportedly have asked the priest why not just burn the bodies?
“If you think the dead are garbage, when your mother dies put her in the garbage at the curb!” Father Frechette is said to have replied. Calling his burial crew, consisting of about 12 men, “The Grateful Dead,” he added, “Nobody could do this alone. We take these poor souls from a horror to a world garden by the sea.”
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