By Lou Baldwin
Special to the CS&T
Should you ever visit the deceptively beautiful Republic of Haiti on the western third of the Caribbean Island of Hispaniola, and stray beyond the few tourist enclaves or walled compounds of the privileged class, you will encounter unspeakable poverty.
If you don’t come away without at least a twinge of moral outrage, don’t bother calling yourself a Christian, no matter how often you go to church.
Think of a country where an estimated 1 million homeless people are living in tents donated after the January 2010 earthquake, and a vast number of others are living in hovels, which at first glance may well be inferior to tents.
All this was duly noted by a small group of priests and lay people from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who traveled to Haiti primarily to see firsthand and bless Father Pfeffer’s Fishing Village, a small coastal village with little houses, boats and equipment supplied by the relief agency Food for the Poor (FFP).
The village was created through donations garnered in the Philadelphia Archdiocese through Father Chuck’s Challenge, headed by Msgr. Francis X. Schmidt, in memory of one of his successors at the Office for Youth and Young Adults, the late Father Charles Pfeffer.
A highlight for most of the group was traveling by a flotilla of fishing boats powered by small Yamaha outboard motors across the Baie de Port-Au-Prince from Rachel’s Village in Kay Piti to Father Pfeffer’s Village in Baussan. Three of the boats were named St. Helena, St. Philip and St. Alphonsus, for Philadelphia suburban parishes whose donations paid for them.
Father Pfeffer’s Village itself is a collection of colorfully painted little houses set back slightly from the shore, as well as a larger building to house the fishing gear, including a small freezer to temporarily store the fish. Because the village does not have electrical service, a solar power grid is mounted on a light standard to provide outdoor illumination at night as well as power for the freezer.
After a welcoming ceremony by the grateful villagers, members of the group visited the inspanidual houses which were blessed by Msgr. Schmidt along with Msgr. John B. Wendrychowicz, pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Sellersville, and Father Harold Dagle of the Harrisburg Diocese, both of whom are generous supporters of Father Chuck’s Challenge.
“I wanted to see for myself the terrible poverty,” Father Dagle said, noting that after the earthquake billions of dollars were pledged for Haitian relief, but much of it remains undistributed because of a dearth of responsible authorities and agencies to shepherd the spending.
Kay Bolger, a member of St. Augustine Parish in Bridgeport, visited the house built with her donation. Her greatest reward was meeting the family of four who now live in that house.
“Merci. Thank you for coming all the way,” said a grateful Marie Claude who lives there with her husband and two children.
Tom Dewees, who teaches PREP at St. Mary Parish in Schwenksville, where the confirmation class raised and donated $12,000 for Father Chuck’s Challenge, said “this ties in perfectly with our projects based on the corporal works of mercy. Pictures one sees of the destruction caused by the earthquake don’t do justice to how horrible things are,” he said.
In addition to the 30-home fishing village for which Father Chuck’s Challenge raised $250,000, other projects funded by Food for the Poor were visited, including Little Child of Jesus Home where 100 mentally and physically handicapped children receive loving care, as well as a new school for 300 children, pre-school through sixth grade.
Typical of Haiti, the lower grades were huge, with only about 15 children in sixth grade, because most students drop out before that level.
A first stop was at the FFP feeding station on the outskirts of Port-Au-Prince. Every day approximately 3,000 people come to it, often trudging miles to get food. Each day the station boils an incredible ton-and-a-half of rice which is distributed along with a soup or stew.
No one eats there; it is taken in containers home to feed their families, for an estimated total of 15,000 people. This is more meals every day than most Philadelphia soup kitchens dispense in an entire year.
FFP, which is nondenominational but Catholic-oriented, is easily the largest private charity operating exclusively in the Caribbean and Central America. A secret to its efficiency is that, like Catholic Relief Services, it relies mostly on a network of about 1,800 churches and schools to distribute food and services, rather than local governments, which are all too often inefficient or corrupt or both.
In food alone, FFP feeds approximately 2 million people in the 17 countries it serves.
“Msgr. Schmidt’s mission is so important and Father Chuck’s Challenge is a blessing,” said Robin Mahfoud, FFP’s president. “It’s a fishing village, and the people are earning a living. They have a two-bedroom home with a toilet and shower. It is very modest, but it is like bringing them out of the mud into the light.”
So far his organization has built 75,000 little homes in the region with 6,000 of them in Haiti. “We are gearing up to do 5,000 homes a year there,” Mahfoud said.
Haiti was a new experience for Father Chuck’s Challenge, which previously funded a total of 400 homes through FFP in Nicaragua. “It’s been a unique and memorable experience,” said Msgr. Schmidt, who has no intention of stopping.
For more information visit www.fatherchuckschallenge.com. Donations may be sent to Father Chuck’s Challenge, 110 Nestor Drive, Norristown, PA 19403-2522.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.