Whatever happened to Mission St. Matthieu Eglise Episcopale d’Haiti Escole?
Editor’s Note: Five people from Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
in Lake Charles - Dr. Ben Williams, Glenda Williams, Jay Winter, Dr. Phillip Conner and Mary Richardson — traveled to Haiti in March to find out what had
happened to a school the church had financially
supported for years. This is what they found.
As our four-wheel drive Kia truck inched its way through the narrow iron gates into the dusty courtyard of the St. Matthieu Primary and Secondary School in Begin, St. Matthias Parish, Haiti, we wondered what we were about to find. No one at the school knew we were coming.
The journey hadn’t been easy. We had left the slums and ragged tents of Port au Prince behind and travelled high into the mountains of southern Haiti. The truck had chugged over roads that resembled gravel pits accented with boulders. No guardrails had encumbered our view of the precipices below.
We were traveling through a beautiful country and everything looked picturesque. Yet all these “photo opportunities” represented hardship for the Haitian people. Women in colorful dresses walked in the dust carrying huge, heavy bundles on their heads. Men farmed the steep, denuded slopes, raising red dust with their hoes. Children carried 5-gallon cans on their way to get water. Scrawny goats were tied to bushes.
No power lines spoiled our photographs. Power, clean water, decent roads, clinics, schools, garbage pickup - these are just a few of the services the Haitian government does not provide.
But now we were at the school we had come to see.
The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd has financially supported the “Mission St. Matthieu Eglise Episcopale d’Haiti Ecole” since 1992. Good Shepherd in Lake Charles supplied funds to build the school in 1994, and ever since had been sending money for students’ tuition and teachers’ salaries through the Haiti Education Foundation, But after the earthquake of January 12, 2010 – which killed more than 200,000 people and left the capital in incomprehensible ruin – the church had lost touch with their contacts, either through death or because the people had moved away.
The KIA came to a halt just inside the gate, and we got our first glimpse of beautiful school children in yellow shirts and khaki pants or shirts, looking inquisitively at us, these foreigners who had suddenly interrupted their routine.
“It was like an awkward first date,” Ben Williams said. “All of us were wondering, ‘Who are these people?’ and ‘Will they like me?’”
The answer was, “yes.” “‘We said, ‘Bonjour’ and all was well,”’ Williams said. “The children were wonderful – smiling, laughing, playing soccer on a makeshift field.”
We attended classes, we talked, and we listened. Students from the English language class practiced English on us. “How many children do you have?” was always the first question. Dr. Phillip Conner brought enough suckers for everyone and was wildly popular. We made friends.
Our guide was the priest-in-charge, Pere Frederick Menelas (“Father Fred” to non-French speakers). Pere Frederick is in charge of all 13 of the schools operated by the Haiti Education Foundation, as well as all the 15 Episcopal churches in St. Matthias Parish.
The school, he said, had been declared unsafe for occupancy and the teachers and students were afraid to go in it. But it hadn’t exactly fallen down. Walls were standing, albeit with huge gaps. Concrete was crumbling. Much rubble had been cleared away, but there was plenty left.
The school had stayed open. In the shadow of the condemned concrete block school, they put up tents for classrooms. Later they had put up sheets of plywood for walls, which also doubled for chalkboards. Metal awnings shielded students from the rain and sun. But the floors were still dirt, so dust swirled up into everything.
As we listened to their hopes and dreams, we heard Pere Frederick, the principals, the teachers and the students all say the same thing; they want their school rebuilt.
The school, they made clear, was central to their community. They want classes to be held in enclosed rooms under an attached roof. They want to use the courtyard for games, especially soccer, and not be filled with temporary classrooms.
Yes, they wished they had books for the students, Internet access, a copy machine, a printer, a library - but mainly they wanted a new school.
And there was another wish, one that Pere Frederick talked about with obvious worry. He wished the school could serve a meal, as it had many years ago when funds were available.
“I think many of these students don’t have [food],” he said. “I think there is nothing for many of them to eat when they go home.”
Being hungry is nothing abstract for Pere Fredrick. He knows his students can’t study if they are hungry because it had happened to him. “When I was studying for my accounting diploma, I was so hungry,” he says. “I couldn’t stay in school. I just left.”
Haiti is among the worst governed and most poverty stricken countries in the world. Dr. Philippe Girard, head of the history department at McNeese State University, writes in his book, Haiti: The Tumultuous History, “Roads are built with international aid, schools are funded by U.S. churches, and clinics are run by European NGOs. All the tasks normally performed by a functioning government are neglected.”
The national budget consists mostly of foreign aid. Since the earthquake, almost $6 billion has been given out in official aid, with another $3 billion or so going to NGOs, according to the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC – all for a country of under 10 million people.
But, although the government is always looking for aid, Pere Frederick is not.
“You come here today and you help me,” he explains. “But you may not always have the possibility to help me. You cannot solve all our problems. We know that. But we hope you will help us find ways to help ourselves.”
In the meantime, he ministers to their souls.
Church services are filled with music and spirit. When Pere Frederick preaches in his home church, between 300 and 400 people come. Even when he hikes to small mission churches deep into the mountains, 50 people gather.
“We priests are everything to the people,” he says. “When they need something, they come to me. They say ‘thank you’ to me, but the person to thank is God. God put someone in their way to help them.”
We were invited to take part in The Great Litany, which Pere Frederick leads every Friday.
Because all Episcopalians use the same Book of Common Prayer, the liturgy is the same the world over. So, even though the service was French and Creole, the rhythm was the same and we knew where we were in the service.
Yet the familiar words seemed different.
We prayed, That it may please thee to show thy pity upon the homeless and the hungry, and all who are desolate and oppressed. We had seen the torn tents in Port au Prince. We had seen the homeless, the desolate, the oppressed.
We prayed The Lord’s Prayer, Give us today our daily bread, remembering the students from the school, and wondering if the people sitting next to us on the rough wooden benches had eaten that day.
Yet, the service was a celebration. The people were glad to be in that church, celebrating with Pere Frederick and with each other.
“It is easy to be a Christian at home,” Williams said. “Here people cling to a faith born out of the hardest burdens of survival.” What a lesson. “Amen.”
If You Would Like to Give –
Donations to the Mission St. Matthieu Eglise Episcopale d’Haiti Ecole can be made through the Tend My Lambs program of the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church.
• $75 provides tuition for one student for one year.
• $35 provides school supplies for one student for a year.
Monies may also be specified for the discretionary fund for Pere Frederick,
which he uses to help with medical needs and food for parishioners.
• Donations are also needed to rebuild the school.
Checks may be made payable to:
Tend My Lambs,
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church,
715 Kirkman Street, Lake Charles, LA 70601.
For more information, contact Glenda Cormier Williams at 337-842-9265, or at