Campaign highlights link between diocese, Haiti

Education of Haitian children and youth is one of the priorities being funded by the 2020 Hope for Haiti Campaign. Money will support the people in the Diocese of Hinche — the Diocese of Richmond’s twin diocese. (Photo provided)

Focus on food, education fortifies parish twinning relationships


It’s a friendship that has endured through times of coup and upheaval — and that continues in this time of pandemic, with its accompanying reminder that challenges know no borders.

Since 1984, the Diocese of Richmond has had a unique relationship with parishes and schools throughout Haiti — primarily in the Diocese of Hinche in the mountains bordering the Dominican Republic. It is a relationship that has led to visits between the two countries, opening doors to other cultures and forging friendships between people of different nations, united in their Catholic faith.

“It’s been a joyous experience,” said Kathleen Dowdy, a parishioner at Holy Family, Virginia Beach, who has long been active in Haiti Ministry. “And now we have a chance to stand in real solidarity with another diocese.”

Friendship in the time of COVID-19

Typically, Haiti ministries rely on a variety of fundraisers to support their endeavors, such as selling fair-trade coffee after Mass and holding 5K races, dinners and golf tournaments — all of which have been put on hold due to the pandemic. All travel between the two nations has also been suspended. “No one is going anywhere,” Dowdy said.

“No one has any money. Everyone is in this together. It’s important to do what we can in times like these.”

This year, several volunteers and committees have joined together to form the Haiti 2020 Task Force in an effort to raise money virtually, via the organization’s website:

The website allows parishioners to donate to any one of three funds: one for education; one that will be used to stock a newly-completed food storage warehouse; and one — the Diocese of Hinche Support Fund — that will be used as a general fund, to be made available to the bishop of Hinche to use wherever the need is greatest.

It’s an online pledge drive that reaches 1,200 miles away.

Three funds, two nations, one goal

At the heart of the diocese’s Haiti ministry is its twinning program, in which a parish or other organization in Haiti is paired with a sister parish in Richmond. There are also several other groups and committees who collaborate with partners in Haiti on larger issues, such as education and health care.

“The beauty of the ministry is that it’s led by the people, so that they tell us exactly what they need,” said Dowdy, a retired teacher and member of the Haiti Education Support team. “Everything is put to such good use. It makes you wish you could do more.”

For example, the Education Support Team, she said, works alongside of the Bureau of Diocesan Education in Hinche, helping them to provide teacher training programs as well as books and materials to more than 150 schools.

Any contributions made to the education fund during the pledge drive will be matched up to $9,000, a grant made possible by private donors.

“So anything given will go all the further,” Dowdy said.

Diane Atkins, human concerns minister at Church of the Redeemer, Mechanicsville, agreed that it’s the long-term relationships with their partners in Haiti that make the ministry such a success.

The two dioceses have recently teamed together to build a warehouse, she said, and one of the goals of the Haiti 2020 Task Force is to raise money to stock it with food that can be distributed to families throughout the diocese, regardless of their parish. The food drive also has an accompanying $50,000 matching grant given by an anonymous donor.

“Not every parish has a ‘twin,’” said Colleen Hernandez, a parishioner at Our Lady of Nazareth, Roanoke. “And so sometimes there is some disparity there, between parishes who have support from Richmond and those that do not. The warehouse will help ease some of that disparity.”

The Diocese of Hinche Support Fund will likewise give the bishop some flexibility in the management of projects that might be missed by the Twinning Ministry, such as larger sustainability and health care programs.

As with the education team, the Healthcare Support Team has formed its own partnerships in Haiti, said Dr. Kurt Elward, a parishioner at Church of the Incarnation, Charlottesville, working with priests and medical professionals in the Diocese of Hinche to create a dependable medical supply program.

“In the early days, I used to pack a briefcase of medications, and when they ran out, that was that,” he said.

Today, a new system enables clinics to obtain medications from sources within Haiti, rather than having them shipped from the U.S., ensuring that they are consistently available, he said.

The Healthcare Team has also joined with Midwives for Haiti, a non-profit organization that provides midwifery training, a program that makes a great difference to many, Elward said, as childbirth is the second most common cause of death for Haitian women, after HIV.

“Their goal is to teach Haitian women how to provide good midwifery care, so that the program becomes a Haitian endeavor,” Elward said. “It has been a blessing to hundreds of mothers and infants.”

Parish support comes full circle

Last month, a new chapter in the partnership between Hinche and Richmond began as Father Kesner Joseph, the first priest from Haiti to serve in the Diocese of Richmond, began his assignment as parochial vicar at St. Michael, Glen Allen.

“The bishops got together and made an agreement, and so here I am,” he said with a laugh. “I am obedient.”

Father Joseph, 50, was born in Maïssade in the Diocese of Hinche and ordained a priest in 2000. Before coming to the U.S., he served for 10 years as pastor at Holy Family, Cerca-Carvajal, a parish twinned with St. Edward, Richmond.

“It’s made the transition easier, as I have been to Richmond many times before, on visits to our twinned parish,” he said.

Father Joseph said he also has a brother living in Boston.

“We are very close. We are brothers, but we are also friends,” he said.

For the past year, Father Joseph has been at Divine Word College in Iowa improving his English before beginning his parish assignment. He said he was most surprised, upon arriving at his new parish, at the size of the confirmation class.

“There are a hundred students or more,” he said. “It was wonderful to see.”

And will Father Joseph be involved in St. Michael’s twinning ministry, now that he is here, on the other side of the water?

“I am sure that I will,” he said. “I am very much looking forward to being a part of everything here, to collaborate and to help however I can.”

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