Photo courtesy of Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland

SANFORD — “All parents and students did not hide their feelings of gratitude towards God and towards you, for having thought about them at this time when everything is going wrong in our country.”

The words of Fr. Frede, pastor of St. Anthony the Hermit Parish in Lori, Haiti, to the parishioners of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Sanford are equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. They convey gratitude for the latest support received at the parish from their friends in Maine, this time, donations from parishioners in Sanford helped start a daily school lunch program for 400 children in Lori.

“Haiti has exploded with gang violence, political instability, and a severe food shortage,” Fr. Frede wrote in a recent letter to St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish. “May Christ, the Risen One, be a blessing and a blessing to you in this noble task of helping the needy. I, as the director of this said establishment, am very grateful to you.”

“For many years, the parish has helped St. Anthony the Hermit Parish through financial assistance ranging from rebuilding a church after a hurricane to building a pedestrian bridge over a river that enables people in the poor area to reach town. It’s incredible,” said Fr. Bill Labbe, pastor of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish. “It’s a devotion and commitment that is clearly rooted in a very deep faith.”

Parishes across Maine have found ways to lend a helping hand to Haiti, support and care that has extended nearly 2,000 miles over many years and into the hearts of thousands in need.

For over 15 years, St. Joseph Parish in Farmington and St. Rose of Lima Parish in Jay have been paired with St. Laurent Parish in the Diocese of Les Cayes, Haiti. The parishes were connected through the Parish Twinning Program of the Americas.

“The opportunity was introduced to us by Fr. Roger Chabot, who was our pastor at the time. We reached out to St. Rose of Lima Parish and invited them to join us. Since then, participation and members have come from both parishes,” said Janet Brackett, chair of the parishes’ Haiti Ministry Committee and a parishioner at St. Joseph.

At the start of the initiative, once a month, volunteers collected donations for their “sister parish” in Haiti as parishioners left Mass. Soon, interest in offering aid grew and the parishes’ commitment evolved into a monthly second collection in the pews. Regular visits to St. Laurent began in 2008 as parishioners paid their own way to make the journey (funds collected for St. Laurent are never used for the travel of organizers). During their time in Haiti, the Maine parishioners would purchase Haitian crafts to sell at holiday fairs, community events, and even local galleries, with the proceeds benefiting the Haitian parish. As the donations continued to grow in size, so did the list of ideas to help.

“A couple from St. Rose sponsored an annual breakfast with all of the proceeds going to St. Laurent,” said Brackett. “For several years, the youth ministry at St. Rose raised money as part of their Lenten program. After the Haitian earthquake in 2010, we partnered with the local rotary club to do a dinner and silent auction event and after Hurricane Matthew, we raffled a handmade lap quilt and sold direct trade Haitian-grown coffee as part of a fundraising program.”

The ministry even has its own Facebook page (www.facebook.com/StJoesStRoseHaitiCommittee). In 2013, the Jay and Farmington parishes started to utilize a container shipment program offered by PTPA. Parishioners collect needed items and send them to Nashville, where PTPA is based. The donations are packed in 40-foot containers and shipped to Haiti, where they are unpacked and distributed to St. Laurent and other parishes.

“The first time we did this, we collected items to furnish a small community clinic that we had financed; we sent exam tables, scales, file cabinets, office chairs, crutches, canes, blood pressure cuffs, a hand-held fetal sonograph and lots of over-the-counter medicines,” said Brackett. “I love the fact that we can see the difference our parishes are making in St. Laurent with a clinic that is operational, run by Haitian health care providers, and the parish and schools thriving.”

“When you go down there, you can see the improvements that the money and support brings about,” says Paul Anderson, who traveled to Haiti from Farmington seven years ago. “I think that’s why the people in the parish continue to donate so much. They see concrete evidence.”

During the pandemic, the needs have shifted, but the support from Maine has been solid as a rock.

Back in Sanford, St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish, which has been “twinned” with St. Anthony the Hermit Parish for over five years, has recently donated nearly $20,000 in food packets to Haitians in need, an extraordinary number when you consider that St. Anthony the Hermit Parish receives approximately $70 per month in collections.

“The twinning relationships become bridges whereby the love of God flows in both directions as parishes learn to care, share, and pray for one another,” said Theresa Patterson, executive director of PTPA. “Both spiritual and financial support are offered.”

Just happy to respond to the call to help those in need, many Maine parishes pitch in without an official “twinned” designation.

For over a decade, St. Patrick Church in Newcastle has held an annual dinner for the residents of Gros-Morne, Haiti, to provide school supplies and lunches for children (only $1 per week to support a student), fund a new poultry project, and pay for building materials to help repair damage from earthquakes. Attendees have the opportunity to pledge support to different projects. Initially, the focus of assistance was destitute refugees fleeing the effects of the earthquake in Port-au-Prince. Over the years, the focus of the fundraising has shifted to projects targeted at bringing social and economic opportunity to the poorest residents of the town.

Holy Spirit parishioners in Wells and Kennebunk assembled over 300 birthing kits and 400 newborn kits for Haitian women. Each of the birthing kits included alcohol wipes, gauze pads, a nasal aspirator, soap, a scalpel, a plastic sheet, sanitary pads, underwear, and medical gloves, while newborn kits contained a washcloth, cloth diapers, pins, a changing pad, a receiving blanket and onesies.

“Women in many areas of Haiti often have no option other than to give birth in unsanitary conditions. The kits that were assembled provide materials necessary to offer more sanitary circumstances for a mother and her baby during and after birth,” said Mary Colombo of Holy Spirit Parish.

“The volunteers were so enthusiastic and happy to be involved,” said Leana Regan-Dolan of Holy Spirit Parish. “It was evident in the smiles on the faces of everyone who worked to assemble the kits!”

The Sacred Heart/St. Dominic Parish Social Justice & Peace Commission holds collections and special events to raise money for Christ the King Parish School in Morne Rouge, Haiti. Over 200 children attend the school and money from the fundraisers help pay the salaries of teachers and fund the school’s daily meal.

“The students are fed a simple rice and beans meal at school every day, cooked on an open fire next to the school,” said Anne Johnson of Sacred Heart/St. Dominic Parish. “Sometimes, it is their only meal. Our ‘Haiti Project’ began helping Christ the King Parish School in 2004. At that time, the pastor, Pere Gabriel Julmice, was superintendent of Catholic schools in Haiti. He started a parish school holding classes in the corners of their church.”

The donations from Portland made an immediate difference in Morne Rouge.

“Our donations enabled him to build one classroom after another,” said Johnson. “Now there are six grades and a kindergarten!”

The financial support for the “Haiti Project” comes in many forms. In addition to the collection, the parish holds an annual “Empty Bowl Supper” at Sacred Heart Church where soup and bread are donated by local restaurants and bakeries. Attendees take home their empty bowls as a reminder to be in solidarity with the people of Haiti and others living in extreme poverty who have nothing to put in their bowls. The parish also organizes an annual yard sale, a flatbread pizza fundraiser, and other events to raise money.

The incredible support from Maine parishes has made a real difference in the lives of countless people the donors will never meet, and the support that will continue, a fact proven with the continued generosity present even in the face of a pandemic.

“I can only speak for myself, but the opportunity to be involved in the Haiti Ministry has been a tremendous gift,” said Brackett. “I have gotten to know so many wonderful people in Haiti and in my own backyard. I am thankful for the opportunity to answer God’s call to serve those in need, but it always seems to me that I receive much, much more.”