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Haitian parish restoring church after 2018 quake

Receiving support from sister parish in Dubuque

By Dan Russo
Witness Editor

DUBUQUE — On Oct. 6, 2018, an earthquake shook the seaside town of Port-de-Paix in Haiti, home to about 140,000 people, including the members of St. Montfort, the sister parish of St. Anthony in Dubuque.

The church, rectory and guest house suffered serious damage, but on the day of the disaster, Father Rebert Beldorin, pastor there, had other things on his mind. With about a dozen people in the surrounding area reportedly killed and many more hurt, the priest turned his parish’s truck into a makeshift ambulance.

“I was transporting injured people to the hospital,” recalled Father Beldorin in an email to The Witness. “The people in Iowa must know that although they are in Iowa, they are doing mission (work) in Haiti because they support me in my mission at St. Montfort. They helped me to buy the truck.”

Although the earthquake of 2018 was not nearly as powerful as the one in 2010 that killed thousands, the impact on the community in Port-de-Paix has been significant. Since then, Father Beldorin has been sleeping on the floor of a small parish hall and rising at 4:30 a.m. to get the facility ready for Masses. The parish has lost the use of its worship space, and the pastor has lost his residence. St. Montfort’s parishioners have refused to let the quake destroy the cohesion of their faith community, as happened to many Catholic parishes after the bigger disaster almost a decade previously.

“(The Haitian government) condemned the church, the rectory and the guest house,” said Mel Harvey, a member of St. Anthony Parish. “The people did not accept that.”

St. Anthony parishioners established the relationship with St. Montfort decades ago, with Harvey being one of the original visitors to Haiti in the 1990s. In April each year, on the feast of St. Louis de Montfort, a delegation from St. Anthony usually visits Port-de-Paix. Over the years, St. Anthony has helped establish a medical clinic, which is now mostly self-sustaining, invested in goats so their counterparts can start a business, which helps feed the families there, and also invested in the buildings. It was only natural then, that the Iowa parish aid St. Montfort in the effort to restore the church after the earthquake.

The Haitians hired their own engineer to assist with saving the church building. The people have donated materials and labor as well. To supplement this, St. Anthony has held a fundraising appeal.

“The rebuilding is going to be in phases,” said Father Steve Rosonke, pastor of St. Anthony Parish. “Currently, the (St. Montfort) parishioners in conjunction with professional workers are reinforcing the walls and roof of the church. The next phase is to demolish the office (pastor residence) and the guest house. St. Anthony hosted (Father Beldorin) for about five days recently. We were able to hear about the progress that has occurred firsthand. St. Anthony has raised around $20,000 to help our sister parish. We are standing by them in any way we can.”

St. Montfort hit a milestone in the effort to restore the church recently when parishioners held their first Mass inside the building on Holy Saturday. Although the roof wasn’t yet complete, the fact that the people were able to worship together inside caused much joy. For them, the project is about much more than just a building.

“After the earthquake it was important for us to repair the church because we want to stay together to pray to our father to celebrate our faith,” said Father Beldorin. “It’s for us a place of the spiritual renewal, a place of humanization, socialization and living together. By this experience (restoring the church building) we can say the faith doesn’t make us sterile she makes us dynamic and creative, she gives us the possibility to put our talent together to have a better life. The parishioners give more contribution to repair the church: money, iron, cement, sand. … They do like widow Sarepta. The little they have they give for the service of God.”

Iowa tabernacle headed to Haiti

A major issue that came up in restoring St. Montfort Church was the need to obtain a new tabernacle to hold the Blessed Sacrament. The old one survived the earthquake, but was part of an altar and couldn’t be separated from it and placed in the new spot designated for a tabernacle in the renovated church. When Father Beldorin visited Iowa earlier this month, he asked if there were any tabernacles available in the Archdiocese of Dubuque that were not being used.

It just so happened that an intricately designed brass piece had come into the possession of the archdiocesan archives recently. The sacred item had previously belonged to Father Mark Reasoner, the former pastor of St. Jude Parish in Cedar Rapids. The 53-year-old priest died unexpectedly in March 2018. The tabernacle was part of his estate. Several friends and colleagues of Father Reasoner contacted by The Witness were unsure how the pastor came to own it, but interestingly enough he had a connection to the island nation through St. Jude, which has a sister parish called Holy Cross in Fonds Verrettes, Haiti.

Sister Sheila Ann Dough­erty, PBVM, former director of music at St. Jude who worked with the priest for several years, believes Father Reasoner would be happy to hear about the church project in Port-de-Paix.

“He actually went to Haiti, so he would be thrilled to know his tabernacle would go to Haiti,” she said.

The tabernacle itself has some dents, which made Harvey and others speculate it may have been in a fire or other traumatic event in its mysterious history. He says, however, that the Haitians plan to repair and restore the item.

“They have wonderful artisans,” he said.

A special delivery 

Once the tabernacle was selected, the question of how it would get to Haiti arose. No one from St. Anthony was going for this year’s St. Montfort feast, since the guest house they would normally use was damaged. Shipping the piece by itself turned out to be extremely expensive, according to Harvey, but another method was found. Pascal Alvin Jean Gilles, a student from Haiti who is currently finishing his master’s degree in business at the University of Dubuque, has been friends with the Harvey family since he was very young. His parents, Rose and Ginel, are parishioners at St. Montfort. With his father scheduled to come up to attend Pascal’s graduation in May, a plan was made to have the patriarch of the Jean Gilles family take the tabernacle back with him in his luggage, thereby saving a lot of money and trouble.

The student, now in his late 20s, is happy he and his father can play a role in helping his parish back home. Ironically, Jean Gilles’ road to pursuing his education in Iowa came as the result of the 2010 earthquake. Back then, he was an undergraduate at a business school in Haiti. On the day of the 2010 earthquake, he had not yet arrived at his school building for a French class.

“It got destroyed completely,” Jean Gilles recalled. “I am one of 22 students out of our class of about 80 that survived.”

In 2011, Jean Gilles met a representative of Divine Word College in Epworth who was visiting St. Montfort Parish with a group from St. Anthony. He was encouraged to apply to Divine Word’s program for lay students and was later accepted. He then enrolled in the master’s program at the University of Dubuque.

On the day of the 2018 earthquake, he was “shocked” and apprehensive for a while because he had trouble getting in touch with his parents. Finally, his mother contacted him to say that she and his dad were okay. He is impressed by the effort of St. Montfort to rebuild the church, but not surprised the people are so passionate about it.

“The building is part of the culture,” said the young man. “It’s something that’s embedded in us.”


Above is a photo of St. Montfort Church after much of the restoration work over the past year. There is still much to do involving the roof and interior, among other things. (Contributed photo)