BANGOR, Maine — When she is ordained an Episcopal priest next year, seminarian Margarette Saintilver will serve at a church far different from the one in which the 26-year-old will preach Sunday.
The only church in her country that looks like St. John’s Episcopal Church, a Gothic Revival stone edifice on French Street, is the cathedral, located in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti.
“Our [other] church buildings are very simple,” she said. “There are no stained glass windows.”
Some of them have not been rebuilt since the summer of 2008, when Haiti was hit by tropical storms Fay, Gustav, Hannah and Ike in one month.
Saintilver will return Monday to the seminary in Port-au-Prince after spending two months in the Diocese of Maine. Most of her time has been spent in Bangor, where she has worked with the Rev. Marguerite “Rita” A.H. Steadman, rector of St. John’s.
“I have learned from seeing her walk with the church and have a family and be a mother [to her two children] and be a rector,” Saintilver said Friday. “I have seen her taking care of the church. She knows what’s going on and she knows the people and each member or their families.”
Saintilver will be the second woman in Haiti to be ordained a priest. The first is the director of the primary school at Holy Trinity Cathedral and a staff member at the cathedral in Port-au-Prince, according to Saintilver.
Her invitation to spend time with Steadman and several other women priests in Maine came through the former bishop of the Maine diocese, the Rt. Rev. Chilton Knudsen. Since retiring more than a year ago, Knudsen spent the winter months working in Haiti.
The diocese has had a sister relationship with the diocese in Haiti for many years. Haiti Matrix was formed at St. John’s last year in an effort to find ways of increasing parishioners’ awareness of and connection with the people of Haiti, according to Ann Holland Faulkner, with whom Saintilver stayed in Bangor.
“Margarette’s personality, her very positive outlook, her sunny disposition and the deep spiritual well from which she draws are really remarkable for such a young woman,” Faulkner said. “They have been remarkable gifts for us.”
Saintilver is the fourth of six children. She was born and raised in Port-au-Prince. Her family has been supportive of her decision, she said.
“I had the idea to be a priest when I was little girl,” she said, “but I didn’t bring it up with people. I would say that I did not choose God, God chose me. I want to be a priest to help my country as a Christian and to answer that call.”
The greatest contrast between Maine and Haiti, besides the climate, is the economy.
Civil strife, poverty, natural disaster and degradation of the environment have combined to make Haiti the 148th least developed nation in the world out of 179, according to Episcopal Relief and Development, a church agency. About 80 percent of its population lives in poverty and 75 percent of children under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition.
“Years of political instability have tremendously stressed the infrastructure of civil society and the ecology of Haiti,” the agency’s Web site says. “There is no functioning public health or educational system; only 55 percent of Haitian children ever attend school and just 20 percent continue to secondary school.
“The economy is in tatters,” the statement on the Web site says, “with roughly [two-thirds] of the labor force eking out an income through the informal economy and many relying on remittances from relatives abroad for survival. To compound matters, the country is 95 percent deforested.”
The Episcopal Diocese of Haiti, with 180,000 members, is the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church. The diocese includes the entire nation and has nearly 100 churches, which also support schools, according to www.haitiepiscopalconnection.org. Fewer than 50 priests serve the parishes, some of which can be reached only on foot or horseback, according to Saintilver.
The Episcopal Diocese of Maine, which covers the state, has about 17,000 members in 67 congregations and 18 summer chapels. They are served by 65 priests, according to Heidi Shott, diocesan spokeswoman.
The Diocese of Haiti was started in 1864 by James Theodore Holly, an Episcopal priest from Connecticut who was the first African-American bishop in the Episcopal Church. The Maine diocese is much older and had its first beginnings at Popham, when the colony was established in 1607, only four years after the death of Elizabeth I.
One other difference between the two dioceses is how priests and churches are paired. In Maine, congregations interview and hire a priest. The bishop appoints priests to parishes in Haiti.
“I have no idea where I will be in a year,” Saintilver said.
Saintilver will conduct services at 8 and 10 a.m. Sunday at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 225 French St., Bangor.