Catholics extend a hand to Haiti Establishes ties with diocese in Haiti and will provide money and skills.

March 07, 1991|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

Haiti is hurting.

With a daily per capita income of $1, it is called the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere

Baltimore's Roman Catholic archdiocese wants to help heal some of Haiti's ills, while also spreading the faith.

The Baltimore archdiocese and the Catholic diocese of Les Gonaives in northwestern Haiti are establishing a "sister diocese" relationship. Local Catholic clergy and lay people would provide money, professional training and religious education to the 844,000 citizens of Les Gonaives.

The job will be difficult. Seventy-seven percent of the West Indian country's 6 1/2 million citizens are illiterate. And even as a popular new president vows changes, Haiti is reeling from more than 30 years of government corruption and military repression.

"We want the [Baltimore] archdiocese to take note of Haiti's needs," Bishop Emmanual Constant of Les Gonaives said yesterday at the downtown residence of Baltimore Archbishop William Keeler.

Constant is in town this week to meet archdiocesan officials and work out details of the arrangement. A standing relationship between Keeler and Constant is said to be a reason why the sister diocese program is being established.

Myrtle Stanley, the director of the archdiocese's Office of the Propagation of the Faith, said the program is still being planned. It is to include funds from a special collection scheduled for local Catholic parishes in July.

"But we want to go beyond giving money to Haiti. We want to put Bishop Constant in touch with medical personnel, literacy teachers and other professionals from our Catholic community who may be willing to go to Haiti and train people there," said Stanley. "As we talk with him this week, we'll find out exactly what he could use."

A contingent of Baltimore Catholics, including Keeler, is to visit Haiti soon to determine further the needs of Les Gonaives, Stanley said.

Haiti, roughly the size of Maryland, is about 80 percent Catholic. But, as in many Latin American countries that have long been Catholic strongholds, fundamentalist Protestant groups are making inroads. Catholic outreach, such as the sister diocese program with Baltimore, might help to slow the fundamentalist advance, Constant said.

Constant, who arrived in Baltimore last Saturday and leaves this Sunday, also spoke yesterday of Haiti's new president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest elected last December with some 70 percent of the popular vote.

Aristide is known as a liberal and a supporter of liberation theology, which advocates social and political rights for the poor. The Catholic hierarchy in Haiti is held to be more conservative. Yet, says Constant, there is no friction between the president and the clergy.

"People in the church were surprised when he became a presidential candidate," he said. "We knew he had leadership abilities, but we didn't know he wanted to be president. We have had friendly talks with him and we understand that he can give the people hope for justice. In the past, he had a reputation for fighting [the policies of the repressive Duvalier family, which ruled Haiti for most of the past 35 years]."

However, Constant pointed out, Catholic law forbids a priest from holding public office. The Haitian bishops privately have asked Aristide to resign from the priesthood, he said. Aristide has said he will step down if asked by the Vatican. Meanwhile, he is not allowed to celebrate mass or perform any priestly duties while he is president, said Constant.

"It would be better for the country if he resigned as a priest. Otherwise, he might be viewed as a puppet of the church," the bishop said.

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