Monday, February 18, 2008

Testimony from Fr. Seamus Walsh


Years and years ago I did further studies at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. McCormick and the University of Chicago are next door neighbors, and my time there was wonderful. The buildings were beautiful, and the whole area of these educational institutions in Hyde Park in south Chicago was glorious. The extraordinary thing about the University of Chicago and McCormick was that within six or seven blocks of their campus the whole area was a wasteland. Buildings were gutted, others had broken doors and boarded up windows, the sidewalks had weeds and grass growing in the cracks. The whole area was a ghetto and one would never walk there alone. While at McCormick I was deeply struck by the power of these two educational institutions to determine the life of the area. That small area was an oasis of civility, learning, beauty, and safety while surrounded on all sides by chaos, poverty, violence and fear.

I was reminded of the power that education and a school can have on a community in November when I went with nine other people to Kobonal in Haiti and the Catholic Mission there. The Mission’s only priest is Fr. Glenn Meaux, and for over eighteen years he has built an extraordinary place of refuge, productivity, peace and hope for some fifteen hundred families. This year two Religious Sisters of the Society of Our Lady have joined the Mission and Fr. Meaux says they are indeed a welcomed addition. All around this Mission is abject poverty, unemployment and misery.

The average income per year in Haiti is $350 US. Yet the Mission has purchased land and built forty six modest but sturdy 572 sq. ft. (22x26ft) homes for forty six families who were the poorest of the poor. I was honored to be part of the blessing of twenty two of these homes while I was there. The Mission purchases grain and potatoes from the local small farmers who are parents of the school children at 20% above the market price for their crop. The Mission has purchased a small corn grinder and uses it to grind the corn into meal that they purchased from these farmers for food for the children in its school and to feed the hungry of the neighborhood and surrounding Villages.

The Mission gives employment to approximately 200 people from the villages. In addition, once a month the Mission provides clothing, rice, corn meal, beans and cooking oil to about a thousand children and elderly who are the poorest of the poor. Without that help, most of these people would die of malnutrition. It was an extraordinary sight to see a line of some forty ponies, mules and donkeys with panniers on each side come to the Mission to pick up these supplies that enable these families to survive for another month. The Mission people told me that when this food first became available some ten years ago, there were only a few people who possessed an animal to carry home the food. Now we saw this huge line of them – a sure sign that the economy and income of these people is definitely improving.

The astounding revelation for me was that the success of this Mission is not the church there – it doesn’t have one. Mass is celebrated in one of the classrooms without walls and the worshippers are scattered around the grounds. Nor is it due to government help – it gets absolutely nothing from the local or national government. The anchor and center of this Mission is its Catholic school for 1,300 children from grades 1 – 8. Because Fr. Meaux has decided that the education, the feeding and well being of these children is the focus of his missionary activity, a small industry has grown up centering on the school. The youngest children are fed twice a day with cornmeal and beans, and the older ones once a day. These children have come to school without a breakfast, and more than likely they wouldn’t have much to eat after they got home.

The school is not only the source of their education, but also of nourishment, and ultimately of hope to break the cycle of poverty. Because of this Catholic school, there are 76 teachers paid at an average of 400 Haitian dollars, 54 people employed for the security of the Mission, and 12 in administration, repair, maintenance, and in building the new homes for the very poor. Also, the poor who get new homes, give their old house to someone poorer and the cycle of development continues. Because of the school, a whole economy has grown that gives gainful employment to many people. Without the school none of this would be possible. And that’s the connection with McCormick and the U of Chicago. These places of education have made all the difference for the areas where they exist.

The Mission is not self-sustaining. It has depended on gifts, child’s tuition (each child brings a stick of wood to fuel the fires to cook their lunch) and is always dependent on the grace of God. Fr. Meaux’s dream is to establish a list of at least 1,000 donors who will guarantee $30 per month or $360 per year for the education of a child in this school. Every dollar you give will be used for the children and after there are 1,000 sponsors, the families can be helped by giving loans and starting more parents in the agriculture projects. There are no administrative or other costs. If you’d like more information, or more details, or would like to be one of these sponsors, you can contact Fr. Meaux at:

SOLT, Haiti Mission
Att: Mrs. Sue Hoffpauir
140 Rue Beauregard - Suite A
Lafayette, Louisiana 70508
Phone 337-654-1400

Seamus Walsh. Thanksgiving Day, 2007