A ‘burst of hope’ in Haiti

St. Bede continues twinning effort in memory of Msgr. Joe Lehman

A little more of the light of Christ is shining in the world in the form of a new church, gleaming white under the sun, in Thomonde, Haiti.

The parish of St. Joseph consecrated its new church on the Feast of St. Joseph, Sunday, March 19.

It was a day of celebration for the parish, as well as for a parish 1,300 miles away — its twin, St. Bede, Williamsburg.

St. Bede offered its support throughout the construction, as well as a donation of $150,000 – a bequest left by an anonymous parishioner with the wish that the funds be used for the benefit of St. Joseph.

“There is still a little work to be done,” Chris McFarland of St. Bede’s Haiti ministry said, “but we adjusted our priorities so that the church could be ready on time. We were so excited when we saw the photos.”

Msgr. Joe Lehman

During the weekend of April 23, St. Bede’s Haiti ministry is holding its annual collection with the hope of continuing its support of the parish – particularly of two regional schools – thus keeping the light of the newly rekindled ministry burning throughout the coming year.

Light of Christ

St. Bede began its twinning relationship with St. Joseph in 1999, volunteer Paul Dauphinais said, but its roots in the Haiti ministry go back to the very beginning of the diocesan program.

“Parishioners from St. Bede were there on some of those first trips to Haiti, back in the 1980s,” he said.

Dauphinais said he was drawn to the ministry from his experience of having lived in Haiti from 1976 to 1979.

“I went back to Haiti in 2005,” he said, “and, to my surprise, I found that the situation there was worse.”

“But when I got to Thomonde,” he said, “I saw this cute, neat little town. There was a nice little square, and – right smack-dab in the middle – was this large, old church that was crumbling. And I had this feeling that this was like the light of Christ in the darkness in the world.”

Interest in St. Bede’s Haiti ministry waned in the 2010s, and there were challenges along the way, Dauphinais said, but, from that point on, it became the hope of the ministry to help St. Joseph build a new parish home.

Moving mountains

During the celebration of St. Joseph’s feast day on March 19, 2018, Bishop Désinord Jean, bishop of the Diocese of Hinche, noted the extent of the disrepair of the old church and ordered it condemned, Dauphinais said. The church was razed, replaced with a temporary lean-to structure for the celebration of the liturgy.

Despite a faltering economy, the parishioners of St. Joseph raised $12,000 by the end of 2019.

That same year, a new pastor, Father Bertrand DesForges, arrived at St. Joseph. He was determined to make the new church a reality.

“Father Bertrand moves mountains; it was amazing what he was able to accomplish,” Tom Mahoney, chair of St. Bede’s Haiti ministry, said.

Meanwhile, St. Bede also received a new pastor: Msgr. Joseph P. Lehman III. In his previous assignment as pastor of Our Lady of Nazareth, Roanoke, he supported the parish’s vibrant Haiti ministry.

“At that time, our ministry had plateaued,” McFarland said. “When Father Joe came, he started asking around, raising awareness. He is the one who really brought it to life again.”

Help pours in

Once the people of St. Joseph began to raise money for a new church, help arrived.

St. Margaret Mary Parish in Neenah, Wisconsin, a second parish twinned with St. Joseph, contributed funds to lay an earthquake-resistant foundation and supports.

Father DesForges obtained a grant of $115,000, which sped up construction immensely, Dauphinais said.

“But then,” McFarland said, “there came COVID, followed by political unrest. It became very difficult to get building supplies.”

Beginning in mid-2020, Msgr. Lehman sent $75,000 – half of an anonymous bequest – to Thomonde, enabling the completion of the support structures and most of the roof. A second donation of $75,000, along with donations made by Haitians living in the United States, was enough to complete the main structure.

“We hung in there through thick and thin,” Dauphinais said, “until we were able – by the grace of God and the joint efforts of many – to help St. Joseph meet its biggest need: the construction of a new church.”

In Msgr. Lehman’s memory

After Msgr. Lehman’s unexpected death on Dec. 13, 2022, parishioners redoubled their efforts in his memory.

“It was all Father Joe’s doing, getting us going. He was an amazing force of the Holy Spirit. He was an amazing shepherd,” Mahoney said.

In January, St. Bede held a Haitian dinner, hoping to raise aware- ness of the ministry. Cyndy Unwin, a volunteer from Our Lady of Nazareth, traveled to Williamsburg to speak to those gathered about the importance of the Haiti ministry to the faith community of her parish and to Msgr. Lehman.

“I tried to share that he would really want the ministry to continue

and not subside with his passing,” Unwin said. “It was an honor to do so. It was an honor to remember something positive while we are still grieving.”

“The fact that they have man- aged to get this church built in the middle of everything that’s going on is a miracle,” she said. “It’s a beautiful building. People need hope in Haiti right now, and I think that this will be a burst of hope for them.”

Real effects of the ministry

There is some work to be done on the church, such as installing the pews and the railing for the mezzanine, Mahoney said, but for now the priority of the ministry – and the aim of the weekend collection – is to support two Thomonde schools.

St. Bede, along with its partner twin, St. Margaret Mary, assists two schools in the region — Our Lady of Lourdes at Gonâve, a rural school attended by 200 children, and Le Petit Papillon ( The Little Butterfly), a preschool.

“On top of the books and the teachers’ salaries, the funds also provide meals for the children,” Mahoney said. “So, we make the schools the top priority.”

A new church for St. Joseph Parish was consecrated on the parish’s feast day, March 19, in Thomonde, Haiti.
(Photos/St. Joseph Parish, Thomonde, Haiti)

It is these things – lunches for a child, a donation of a ring for a couple wishing to marry – McFarland said, that make the biggest differences in people’s lives.

“That’s where we see the real effects of the ministry,” he said.

“We aren’t called to try to build a new political system or a new economy,” Dauphinais said. “We are called to be the hands and feet of Christ. This is how Christ works in the world, how his presence spreads – it comes in under the radar.”

“Even if you aren’t successful, even if there are hardships, the fact that you are allowing his presence to continue in the world is a very good thing,” he said.

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