BANGOR, Maine — Just over a year ago, Margarette Saintilver, then a 26-year-old Episcopal seminarian studying in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, delivered a farewell sermon to her new friends in Bangor. She visited the area for two months over the summer, fulfilling an ecclesiastical internship through a long-standing sister relationship be-tween the Episcopal Diocese of Maine and the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti.
On Sunday, Saintilver again addressed the congregation of St. John’s Episcopal Church just hours before returning once more to her country, which not only is still in the throes of recovering from a devastating earthquake in January but also is enduring a new and deadly outbreak of cholera.
“I remember when I was preaching here last summer, I was wondering about what I was going to say to those American people that I do not know and who do not know me also,” Saintilver said in the opening lines of her sermon, drawing affectionate smiles from the congregation at the 8 a.m. service. “But today I feel different. … I feel like part of this community, I see faces I know and hear voices with which I am familiar.”
Saintilver said she has become more confident in her role as a preacher since being assigned to a 10-church subparish on the small island of La Gonave, with approximately 3,000 parishioners to watch over.
Preaching on a reading from the Gospel of Luke, Saintilver exhorted the congregation to remain humble in their faith and to waste no time in feeling arrogant or separate from others.
“My dear friends, the years pass, the illusions fall, time is short,” she said, hesitating only slightly over the English wording of her message. “Do not wait to make a situation that you are not alone on Earth. Do not be too orgueilleux [arrogant] to share some of your beautiful smile to another who needs to cheer up his day.”
For several cheerless days and nights after the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed thousands and devastated much of the impoverished island nation of Haiti last winter, Saintilver was among the missing. Her friends in Bangor waited and prayed for news of her safety. It was nearly a week before word of her survival reached Mother Marguerite Steadman at St. John’s.
At the end of January, Saintilver described her earthquake experience in an e-mail, translated from her native French to English by Ann Holland, a longtime member of the Bangor church who has hosted the young seminarian during her visits to Maine.
In that e-mail, Saintilver described running outside a classroom building after the earthquake began and taking refuge with other students on a nearby soccer field.
“Looking around, I saw the disaster everywhere, the blackness coating the landscape, and the school collapsed with a sizable number of university students beneath the ruins,” she wrote. She later learned that all of her fellow seminary students survived the 7.3 magnitude quake without serious injury, and that her family also survived.
Saintilver, now 27, has spent the intervening months working and studying to finish her education. She is writing her master’s thesis, which explores the parallels between the Old Testament Israelites and the beleaguered but faith-filled people of Haiti, she said in an interview Sunday.
“We are all seeing God, walking with God and hearing God’s message,” she said.
In addition to renewing her connections to Bangor on this visit, Saintilver spent time with an Episcopal congregation in Northeast Harbor. She also attended the annual assembly of the Maine Diocese, held this year at the Sunday River ski resort in Newry, where she saw her first snow.
Diocesan contributions collected at the assembly will be used to help rebuild Port-au-Prince’s Episcopal cathedral, which was destroyed by the earthquake. Saintilver will use donations from the congregation at St. John’s to help meet the needs of her parishioners on La Gonave.
Mother Steadman said Saintilver’s visits have enriched the faith and lives of those who know her.
“Her faith is not tied to the material and cultural practices we have here,” she said. “She brings with her a very present sense that life is short, that we are called to God’s work while we have breath in our bodies, and that loving one another is the most important thing we can do.”
Saintilver was scheduled to fly out of Bangor at 3 p.m. Sunday, the first leg of her long trip back to Haiti.