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Churches In Haiti Lie In Ruins After The Earthquake But Still Try To Comfort And Help

Rev. Jean Eddy Desravines, 61, of Sainte-Agnes Catholic Church near Les Cayes, Haiti, celebrates Mass on Sunday. The church sanctuary was destroyed in the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck earlier this month.
Rev. Jean Eddy Desravines, 61, of Sainte-Agnes Catholic Church near Les Cayes, Haiti, celebrates Mass on Sunday. The church sanctuary was destroyed in the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck earlier this month.

MARCELINE, Haiti – Two weeks after the earthquake, about two dozen worshipers came dressed in their Sunday best. They sat on whatever suitable objects could be fished out of the wreckage of the Catholic church that once stood nearby: folding chairs, mostly, and chunks of concrete rubble for the stragglers.

Gone was the old stone and marble altar that once stood atop an intricate tiled floor. Instead, Rev. Jean Eddy Desravines celebrated Mass at a small wooden table covered by a lace tablecloth.

The magnitude 7.2 earthquake that struck southern Haiti on Aug. 14 damaged and destroyed hundreds of churches, including the main Catholic church in the small town of Marceline, about a 30-minute drive on a windy mountain road north of the port city of Les Cayes.

Rev. Jean Eddy Desravines celebrating Mass in the ruins of his church.
/ Octavio Jones for NPR
Rev. Jean Eddy Desravines celebrating Mass in the ruins of his church.

The shaking sent the heavy, cinder block walls of the nave falling in their entireties to one side, like a giant invisible hand breaking down a cardboard box. The weight of the walls smashed the pews like matchsticks and obliterated the altar.

Desravines, 61, said he was inside his residence next door at the time of the quake, eating breakfast with a staff member. Somehow, both survived unharmed.

"It shook us and threw us on the ground, and then the [building] collapsed," he said. "God saved my life."

The two men were able to crawl to safety, but two women who were cleaning the church sanctuary were killed.

The piles of rubble are so substantial that heavy machinery will be needed to clear it. More than two weeks after the quake, there's still no word on when that will happen.

As a result, the service on this past Sunday – like the Sunday before and what will surely be many Sundays to come — took place in a narrow, dirt pathway behind the destroyed buildings.

But the Mass was still Mass: hymns, sermon, Eucharist, Our Father and Hail Mary, the rhythms recognizable across languages.

A woman prays near the ruins of Sainte-Agnes Catholic Church.
/ Octavio Jones for NPR
A woman prays near the ruins of Sainte-Agnes Catholic Church.

"This has been destroyed," Desravines said, gesturing to the wreckage where the church building once stood. "But the church – it is us. The church is not destroyed."

In the Les Cayes diocese alone, more than 220 Catholic churches and chapels were seriously damaged or destroyed in the earthquake, officials said. Of those still standing, many will have to be demolished and the rest need major repairs before they can be safely used.

More than half of Haitians are Catholic, according to a report by the U.S. State Department. Many also practice some form of traditional Haitian Vodou, whose deities overlap considerably with Catholic saints. Another 29% of the country is Protestant; many Protestant churches were damaged and destroyed as well.

Repairing and rebuilding will be an enormous challenge. Many buildings that are now ruined had taken years to build. The church in Marceline had anchored the community for more than 60 years; one parishioner told NPR he had been christened there, as had his children.

A Sacré-Cœur catholic church located in the center of in Les Cayes, Haiti is seen badly damage from the 7.2 magnitude earthquake from a couple of weeks ago on Friday, August 27, 2021.
/ Octavio Jones for NPR
Sacré-Cœur Catholic Church in Les Cayes, Haiti, was badly damaged in the earthquake.

Financial support for churches in Haiti is limited. Contributions from parishioners are often meager, as most people in rural Haiti live on just a dollar or two per day. Half the population is undernourished, according to the U.N.

After the 2010 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, American Catholics donated nearly $100 million to rebuild churches. Church officials say they are hoping for similar support from overseas now.

"Our faithful at home in Haiti are becoming more and more... impoverished and economically weak. So it must be said that the prospects for reconstruction seem very bleak," Rev. Jean-Marcel Louis, a spokesperson for the Diocese of Les Cayes, told NPR.

The Haitian government has long struggled to provide public services like education and welfare. The dysfunction has increased in recent years, with uncontrolled gang violence and kidnappings alongside the political instability that has followed the assassination of the country's president Jovenel Moïse.

Worshippers have service at the De La Eglise De Dieu Des Cayes, in Les Cayes, Haiti, where its sustained cracks from the 7.2 magnitude earthquake on Friday, August 27, 2021.
/ Octavio Jones for NPR
Worshippers gather in the Première Église de Dieu des Cayes, in Les Cayes, Haiti, which sustained cracks from earthquake.

As a result, church in Haiti is more than spiritual sustenance. Many provide physical provisions like meals and water. Church-affiliated private schools educate more students than public institutions do.

But disasters like the earthquake make that charitable work more difficult at exactly the moment it is most needed, church officials said.

"The church is supported by the parishioners. If they're hurt, or they're sick, or they have a broken arm, then they cannot work. Then we're all affected," said the Rev. Bellevue LeMarc, a pastor at the Première Église de Dieu des Cayes.

Even on a Friday night, his church was full of life; dozens of parishioners attended the evening service as a choir practiced outside.

Every night for the last two weeks, the large courtyard has filled with families whose homes were destroyed or remain unsafe to sleep in. Others stop by to get a warm meal and fill buckets of fresh drinking water from a spigot in the churchyard.

"When we gather, we sing together, we pray together, we eat together. It allows us to face the challenges of life. But when we can't do that, then we're not in a good situation," said LeMarc.

Parishoners of Sainte-Agnes Catholic Church sing during Sunday worship.
/ Octavio Jones for NPR
Parishoners of Sainte-Agnes Catholic Church sing during Sunday worship.

Additional reporting by Christina Cala in Haiti.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.