Deacon Jim and Joan Steger and Deacon Mike and Pam Whitters have been traveling yearly serving along with other team members at two different twin parishes in Haiti for the past nine years. Here are their stories. This is part of an ongoing series to mark the 40th anniversary of the diaconate in the archdiocese.
By Deacons Mike Whitters and Jim Steger
Special to The Witness
My name is Deacon Mike Whitters, and I am a family physician. My wife, Pam, and I live in Clarion. As part of the sister parish program of the Catholic Church, we have been serving in Haiti at our sister parish of Our Lady of Assumption in the region of Anse Rouge.
Pam actually attended the first sister parish visit to Anse Rouge in 2005 along with five other parishioners and Father Beckman from our Holy Family Cluster. The church proper was built of cement walls and a metal roof with no running water, so the team members used the outhouses and washed in basins.
Theresa Patterson, the director of the Parish Twinning Program, accompanied us and said it was the poorest parish she had ever seen with subsistent living conditions. Anse Rouge is in a very dry portion of Haiti, so the vegetation is cactus and bramble and the main industry is mining salt from the ocean.
The city of Anse Rouge has no running water, and electricity comes over the mountains for one or two hours a day to those who can afford it, of which most can’t. The houses in the city are built from blocks of cement and leftover tin, while the houses outside the city are built of wood with thatched roofs.
Father Dorcet, the local pastor, asked if our parish would be able to help them build a school, as local children could not attend school unless their parents could afford it. The Holy Family Cluster raised over $125,000, and a school was built locally and also in surrounding villages.
In June of 2010, at the request of the pastor, Father Dorlean, local medical providers and I began yearly medical mission trips to Our Lady of Assumption. We checked blood pressure, prescribed medications, treated the children for parasites, provided vitamins, and treated many illnesses, of which many are rarely seen in America. Patients given Tylenol or Advil for arthritis were overjoyed and reacted like they were given a bag of gold. Hundreds of eyeglasses were fitted, and people stood up in Mass acclaiming how they could see again.
As a deacon, I assisted at daily and weekend Masses. Father Dorlean had to explain to the parishioners what a deacon was as they did not have any in that village. He explained deacons can be married (as Pam and I slept in the same room) and that I was also a doctor. I had the opportunity to baptize three children using Creole as the local language. I am sure they wondered what I was saying!
In 2009, I, Deacon Jim Steger, joined a team from St. Francis Xavier Parish in Dyersville on our annual trip to Fond Verrettes, Haiti, which is along the border of the Dominican Republic. People of the Dyersville area have been visiting and financially supporting the people of Holy Cross Parish in Haiti through the Parish Twinning Program since 1989, when they teamed up with St. Jude Parish in Cedar Rapids.
These two parishes, and in recent years, the members of the Spires of Faith Cluster and other organizations, helped the people of Fond Verrettes build a new church, school and rectory complex where over 900 students attend school.
In 2007, with the financial help of many people from St. Francis Xavier, St. Jude’s and the University of Northern Illinois, a branch of the Fonkoze Bank was opened in Fond Verrettes, which introduced microlending to the poor with loans of $5-50, making it possible for the people of the area to start small businesses.
Through the collaborative effort with St. Jude’s, the critical need was met for safe drinking water by their support of the Safe Water Program, which provides families with buckets and purification tablets so that they don’t need to fear drinking water and becoming ill.
During our several visits, my wife, Joan, and I have assisted the teams in visiting the people, delivering needed supplies and accompanying Father Luberman, the pastor, as he makes visits to outlying chapels, where he also serves as pastor.
The availability of medical care had always been an insurmountable issue, but two separate incidents convinced us that something had to be done. On one trip a woman came to the rectory on a dark, rainy night with a deep gash in her leg, and all they had to help her were gauze and ointment from a first aid kit the team had brought. The second incident happened several years later, when a girl of about 17 came to the rectory with the side of her face incredibly swollen from an abscessed tooth, desperately in need of antibiotics, and all they could offer was ibuprofen. The needless suffering of the people prompted the team and us to commit to providing medical care to an area of the world in desperate need. Through the generosity of countless people and organizations the new Sainte Claire Clinique (named after the patron saint of our cluster) was dedicated and opened in September of 2014. With the help of the monks of New Melleray Abbey they employ a doctor, two nurses and a pharmacist.
The people of Fond Verrettes are eternally grateful for all that has been done for them, but they cannot say enough about how thankful they are for the clinic and medical staff.
Father Luberman shows his gratitude by welcoming new teams with open arms, a big smile and the words, “Welcome home!” And for us, it is like going home!
After seeing the conditions in Haiti, Deacons Jim Steger and Mike Whitters decided to run a marathon to raise money for Haiti. In 2013, they raised over $23,000 for their parishes in Haiti.
(Left to right): Joan Steger; her husband, Deacon Jim; Deacon Mike Whitters; and his wife, Pam, are shown after the Des Moines Marathon in 2013. (Contributed photo)