Haiti, The Catholic Church in
HAITI, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
One of the poorest and most politically unstable countries in the Western Hemisphere, the Republic of Haiti occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola in the Greater Antilles, located between Cuba and Puerto Rico. The name Haiti, given to the entire island by the Carib and Arawak Indians, means mountainous land; about 30 percent of the region is over 1,600 feet above sea level, and only 20 percent of its land mass is arable. With the lowest per capita income of any country in Latin America, Haiti's inhabitants live, for the most part, in a subsistence economy. Agriculture produces the export crops of coffee, sugar cane, sisal, cotton, cacao, and bananas. There are virtually no industries. In spite of the beauty of the island and its tropical climate, tourism has not developed because of the unsettled political conditions.
The ethnic composition of the population—95 percent of Haiti's inhabitants are of African descent— reflects its roots as a French colony. Seventy-five percent of Haitians are peasants who work in the towns, speak a dialect called Créole, and understand little French. Five percent of the population, made of French-speaking whites and wealthy people of color, comprise a ruling class whose members have inherited the privileges of the French colonizers. The island's middle class, about 20 percent of the population, consists of people of color ranging economically from a high standard of living to abject poverty. As a group they understand French but usually speak Créole. Beginning in 1957 the middle class began to replace the upper class as the exploiter of the peasants.
The Colonial Era. Christopher Columbus arrived on the island he christened Española on December 6,1492. Placed under Spanish control from 1492 to 1697, Hispanola was administered under the patronato real. It suffered from the depredations of the Carib people, from the greed of the conquistadores, and from European diseases. Ultimately the native population was exterminated. African slaves were brought to the island as early as 1512. After the conquest of Mexico the island became a colony of reduced importance to Spain.
While French and English buccaneers began to use the little island of Tortuga to the north of Haiti as their headquarters early in the 17th century, the English were driven out of the area by 1640. At that time a governor was appointed by the king of France and the Catholic religion was reestablished in the area. In 1681 Capuchins came to the island to take charge of evangelization and to found parishes. They succeeded in bringing some order out of the religious chaos. By the time they left in 1704, six parishes had been established. Then the Jesuits took over, to remain until 1763, the date of the suppression of their order in France. The Capuchins returned in 1768 and continued the work of founding parishes.
Haiti was a flourishing French colony until 1804 when it secured its independence, forcing the last prefect apostolic to flee the island for fear of his life. From 1804 to 1860 Haiti remained in schism from Rome, leaving the nation's various governments to attempt to run the Church as they tried to run the state. What few clergy there were were defrocked religious from various countries and seculars driven out of their own dioceses. While the first Protestants made inroads into the island's population, six separate papal delegations also tried to enter Haiti, but were not recognized by the government.
The Church under the Concordat of 1860. On March 28, 1860, a concordat was finally signed by Haitian President Geffrard and Pope Pius IX. The concordat recognized national patronage, which gave the government the privilege of presenting candidates for bishoprics and provided for the establishment in Haiti of an archdiocese and four dioceses. What Haiti likely needed at this time was the establishment of missionary prefectures or vicariates. It was a land where evangelization had to begin again.
In the cities the reestablishment of the Church organization and the presence of priests, together with the almost immediate foundation of schools, extended Catholicism, and a religious veneer was quickly attained by the upper classes. However, at the same time Marxism also was making a strong impression on the same intellectual elite, and the two ideologies would continue to conflict into the next century.
Despite the concordat, in rural areas religious services still consisted largely in the priests' performing baptisms, giving the Last Sacraments, and presiding over
burial services. This kind of missionary endeavor, which made little fundamental impression upon the Haitian masses, was largely responsible for the continuance of superstition in the country's interior. What teaching was done was fruitless for the most part. Up to 1951 missionaries still used French catechisms, unintelligible to 75 percent of the people. About 1900 Bishop kersuzan wrote a catechism in Créole, but it was never widely used. Forty years later Bp. Robert of Gonaives started a campaign not only for the use of a Créole catechism but also to allow the people to use their own language in hymns. His work would only be partially successful; for the next two decades, when Créole was used at all, churchgoers often sang hymns that were literal translations of French lyrics. In 1959 a much-needed school for the training of lay catechists was opened.
In 1871 a major seminary was established at Pontchâteau, France, under the direction of the Montfort Fathers, to recruit missionaries for Haiti. In 1893 this establishment was taken over by the secular clergy and transferred to Saint-Jacques-par-Lampaul-Guimiliau. In 1922 the Êcole Apostolique, a seminary for the training of a native clergy, was founded by order of the Holy See in Port-au-Prince. In spite of continued directives from Rome, the ecclesiastics in Haiti were slow to encourage a native clergy. In the 1940s Bishop Collignon began to press for implementation of these wishes of the Holy See, but it took another order from Rome, putting Canadian Jesuits in charge of the seminary in 1953, to get any action. The Jesuits were charged to bring the standards of the seminary up to those in the rest of the Catholic world. By 1962 the institution had received 72 seminarians. However, in February 1964 the Jesuits were expelled by the government, and the seminary was closed. It was opened again in October 1965 under the direction of the Viatorians.
[j. m. salgado/eds.]
The Duvalier Years. In 1957 François "Papa Doc" Duvalier came to power. He quickly established his own private army, the notoriously brutal Tonton Macoutes,
which enabled him to control the military, churches, voodoo priests, and rural sheriffs. Virtually all commercial and agricultural enterprises fell under Duvalier's official and unofficial tax schemes. Upon his death in 1971, he was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier. The younger Duvalier, known as "Baby Doc", assumed the title "president-for-life," and thus continued the brutal family dictatorship.
During the period from 1971 to 1986, a new understanding of the Church's mission, involving a prophetic outreach to rural Haitians and away from the urban, mulatto elite was reinforced by Vatican II, liberation theology, an increase in native clergy, the growth of the Ti Legliz movement (the Haitian version of basic Christian communities), and various spin-off Catholic Action groups. The Church shifted its attention to the countryside, working in education, economic development, health, literacy, and the training of peasant leaders. This changed approach—clearly a preferential option for the poor—included a scripture-based adaptation of Catholic social thought and liberation theology. The use of Créole in the liturgy became more common, and the role and ritual of voodoo and its implications for Catholic sacramental theology were also studied.
In 1983 Pope John Paul II visited Haiti. The Holy Father's cry that "things must change" resonated throughout the country and put the dictatorial government on notice. The pope's plea provided cover for the efforts of priests, sisters, and lay leaders. Local Catholic organizations sprang into action, mobilizing the rural sector and urban slums. The Haitian Conference of Religious, Caritas organizations, justice and peace commissions, Ti Legliz groups, and peasant organizations were linked together by the Catholic station, Radio Soleil. In December 1983, the Haitian bishops outlined their social plan in the Charte de l'Eglise d'Haïti pour la promotion humaine. The document, a commitment to solidarity with the poor, announced plans for a massive literacy campaign, Misyon Alfa. Another important result of the pope's visit was that the concordat of 1860 was changed, giving Rome full authority to appoint bishops.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Democracy. As Church involvement in social change increased, so did the arrest, torture, and exile of Church workers. Although on February 7, 1986, the Duvalier dictatorship fell, and Baby Doc was ushered into exile, "Duvalierism without Duvalier" ruled. An overwhelming positive vote on a new constitution on March 29, 1987, was followed by a bloody summer and fall of strikes and killings. In August 1987 a group of priests was brutally attacked after celebrating mass for the victims of the earlier Jean Rebel massacre. The first attempt at democratic elections in Haiti's history on November 29, 1987, ended in a blood bath. The country was then ruled by a series of generals or puppet politicians. It was during these events that a young Salesian priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, left his work among urban homeless children to emerge as a major voice for change. On September 11, 1988, forces attacked the church of St. Jean Bosco where Aristide was celebrating mass. Uniformed police and army stood by and watched as at least 12 people were killed and numerous others wounded. Aristide's strong rhetoric was the cause of conflict not only with the dictatorial government but also with the hierarchy. Less than one month after the attack he was expelled from the Salesian order. In an earlier episcopal letter the Haitian bishops, in an obvious reference to Aristide's popularity, had decried a "people's church" opposed to the hierarchical church and accused him of inciting the poor to violence.
The events at St. Jean Bosco inspired a curious turn of events. Out of the ashes of the church arose Haiti's first democratically elected president. On December 15, 1990, Aristide was elected with over 67 percent of the vote. A coup attempt in January 1991 by Duvalierist forces almost prevented his inauguration. Moreover, the events increased tension with the hierarchy and the Vatican. During protests in Port-au-Prince in favor of the president-elect, the papal nuncio's residence was attacked. Nonetheless, Aristide was inaugurated and presided over the government for eight months, initiating efforts to reestablish peace, protect rights, and aid the poor. On September 30, 1991, a military coup overthrew the government and President Aristide was forced into exile.
Haitians again suffered severe oppression, including an international trade embargo of the country. Military and paramilitary violence claimed over 4,000 lives. During this period community groups, especially the Ti Legliz, were severely repressed. Government infrastructure was totally demolished. Priests, nuns, and lay activists were harassed and arrested. Montfort Father Jean-Marie Vincent was murdered, and Bishop Rornélus of Jérémie was attacked. Despite attacks against the Church by the government, the internal controversy between the hierarchy and Aristide supporters continued.
On October 15, 1994, U.S. government troops landed in Haiti to return President Aristide to power and restore the democratic initiative. The president began the process of rebuilding a government and attempting to build a Haitian economy. U.S. forces remained in control until April 1995 when U.N. troops assumed a peacekeeping role. Aristide's restoration to power reminded Haitians of Bishop Laroche's remarks at the Te Deum of the mass at the president's inauguration. The then-president of the Bishops' Conference likened "cher Père Aristide" to Moses leading his people out of a desert of suffering. Laicized by the Vatican, Aristide was married in January 1996; by the end of the year he had handed over the reins of government to political colleague and former activist Rene Preval, who was elected by a wide margin with Aristide's support.
The Continuing Catholic Presence. For the most part secular clergy took charge of the Church in Haiti during the 20th century. Among the religious orders working there were Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Holy Cross Fathers, Brothers of the Sacred Heart, Montfort Fathers, and Salesians. By 2000 there were 336 secular clergy, a small portion of them Haitians; 257 religious clergy, 323 teaching brothers, and 1,034 sisters.
In 2000 approximately 65,000 pupils were taught in schools conducted under the auspices of the Catholic Church. Following the example of the state-supported lycées, religious establishments provided for the secondary education of young men in two schools in Port-au-Prince, and one each in Cap-Haïtien, Jérémie, and Port-de-Paix. Sisters of St. Joseph and the Filles de la Sagesse each conducted schools for girls in Port-au-Prince; Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, in Les Cayes; and Sisters of the Holy Cross, in Cap-Haïtien. Normal schools and primary schools, with support from the state, were also conducted by religious congregations. In addition, Salesians directed schools of arts and crafts, financed by the state, in Port-au-Prince and in Cap-Haïtien.
Improving the Quality of Life. In addition to dealing with language differences, Catholic clergy made several attempts to establish social cooperatives, such as credit unions, which numbered ten by 1970. After the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1964, a Jesuit-owned radio station was operated by the episcopacy as Radio Soleil. In 1939 Joseph Le Gouaze, Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, founded the daily La Phalange, which operated until it was closed by the government in January 1961. More influential was L'Action Social, published by a group of lay Catholics; it stopped publication because of lack of funds. Its place was taken by Rond-Point, which was closed down by the government in January 1964.
Religious congregations of women served in nine state hospitals and several private hospitals and clinics. Nursing schools were established in connection with the hospital of Father Riou on Tortuga, with the government hospital in Les Cayes, and with several state-supported homes for the elderly. Despite the efforts of the medical profession, the Church, and the government, the fact that many in Haiti continue to subsist in impoverished conditions resulted in an infant mortality rate of 10.2 percent and an average life expectancy of 48.5 years due to the AIDS epidemic by 2000.
Challenges of the Missionary Church. Even apart from the political vicissitudes that began with the Duvalier takeover in 1957, the Church had obstacles to overcome in developing an active Catholic life throughout Haiti. Inroads were made by fostering native vocations and by using Créole for religious instruction. During the second half of the 20th century concubinage still persisted among the peasant class, partly because of the social situation, partly because of economics, and partly because of the shortage of clergy. To remove the social stigma involved in getting these unions regularized, Bishop Collignon organized "campagnes de mariages," which proved quite successful.
Even in the modern world, Haitian freethinkers accepted the practice of voodoo as a "religion of the race" and often incorporated a sophisticated version of it into their practice of Catholicism. Missiology demanded that such practices be treated from an ethnological point of view, then combated with both patient catechical work adapted to the level of the people and a living liturgy that takes into account the misery and illness that fosters voodoo.
Although Haiti is officially considered a Roman Catholic nation, the Episcopal, Methodist, and Baptist churches operate long-standing missions. More recently U.S.-based Evangelical and Pentecostal groups have grown significantly. Certain Protestant sects recognized from the beginning of their penetration of Haiti the importance of native recruitment and medical dispensaries as well as an evangelical appeal. Their success is a result of that knowledge: in 1915 there were only 12,000 Protestants, but in 1949 there were 127,000 and by the mid-1960s approximately 400,000.
Beginning the Next Millennium. Entering the 21st century Haiti's future remained uncertain: poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, an unstable government, the flight of boat people, political obstructions to receipt of muchneeded economic aid, and devastation of the environment all loomed as major obstacles. At the local level the Haitian Church continued to be a vital force for positive change.
Bibliography: j. m. salgado, Le Culte africain du Vodou et les baptisés en Haiti (Rome 1963). j. m. jan, Collecta: Pour l'histoire du diocèse du Cap-Haitïen, v.3 (Port-au-Prince 1958). j.b. aristide, In the Parish of the Poor (Maryknoll NY 1990). conference episcopale d'haiti, Réponse à quelques questions d'actualité dans l'Eglise d'Haïti (Port-au-Prince 1987); Charte fondamentale de l'Eglise catholique sur la promotion humaine (Portau-Prince 1983). a. greene, The Catholic Church in Haiti: Political and Social Change (East Lansing 1993). "Haiti: Security Compromised," Human Rights Watch/America and National Coalition for Haitian Refugees publication (New York and Washington DC 1995). c. poppen, ed., Beyond the Mountains, More Mountains: Haiti Faces the Future, EPICA Report (Washington DC 1994). j. ridgeway, ed., The Haiti File: Decoding the Crisis (Washington DC 1994). a. sylvestre, Ti Kominote Legliz Yo, LIV-1, 2, 3, 4, (Port-au-Prince n.d.).
[j. p. hogan/
j. m. salgado/eds.]