The Church in Haiti: a reminiscence

By Frederick Quinn

<1> The Episcopal Church in Haiti (1959-1961)

The Haiti of François Duvalier was a brutal dictatorship that lasted from his election as president in 1957 until his death in 1971. No voices of political opposition could be raised, the legislature was dissolved, and the cabinet changed every few months. Duvalier (1907-1971), a former country doctor who attracted legitimate attention for his work in successfully eradicating yaws, declared himself president for life and the reincarnation of the Emperor Jean-Jacques Desallines, the black ex-slave who founded the Haitian republic following the defeat of the French in Saint-Domingue in 1802. People with leadership skills during his era fled into exile in various embassies or joined the Haitian diaspora in New York, Miami, or Caracas. Schools closed, teachers and writers sought jobs in Paris with UNESCO or in universities abroad. Haiti was a country with a troubled past, unstable present, and problematic future.

The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in downtown Port-au-Prince with its locally-painted murals of Gospel scenes in Haitian settings is what most Americans recognize first as the presence of the Episcopal Church in Haiti. During my two years in Port-au-Prince I was active at the Cathedral as a lay reader and lived just down the street from the Rt. Rev. C. Alfred Vogeli, Missionary Bishop of Haiti, who had a strong interest in promoting the visual arts, especially painting, and building the church’s local leadership to eventually replace a white bishop with an indigenous one. The Episcopal Church was a minority church in Haiti, even among Protestant groups. The state’s official religion was Roman Catholicism, regulated by a concordat, a diplomatic agreement with the Vatican; among Protestants the Methodist church was preferred by the mulatto elite for its good schools. Voodoo beliefs permiated the society; once, as a way of humiliating the President-for-Life, François Duvalier, his opponents slaughtered an ox on his father’s grave, a particulatrly heinous rite in the vodoo lexicon.

The center of diocesan life in Haiti was the Cathedral. Its main Sunday service was at 6 a.m., filling the large church with several hundred people, even during a tropical downpour. I once asked Bishop Vogeli, a collector of Haiti art, how the murals came about. He said the artists were refused permission to paint in the larger Roman Catholic cathedral, but that he had no hesitation in making the Episcopal Cathedral’s walls available to them. Then he left for a long fund raising trip and vacation in America, and did not see the results until returning several months later.

The Cathedral murals depict biblical scenes in a rural Haitian setting. Surrounding the altar and looking down like characters in a cosmic drama. They were painted between 1949 and 1951 by artists from the Centre d’Art, founded by DeWitt Peters, an American painter and teacher who was quick to see the talent in the Haitian artists and encourage it. Peters was a Graham Greene-like character who had come to Haiti as an English teacher during World War II and stayed until his death in the late 1960s. He had impeccable taste and organizational skills, but also a thoroughly autocratic personality. Artists who wanted to evolve beyond the “primitive” accused him of holding them back. His response was that almost all who switched styles failed to evolve and ended up producing second rate French Impressionist-type works.

The Haitian church was experiencing a period of change in the 1960s. Bishop Vogeli was looking for a Haitian successor, and posts previously held by white American clergy gave way to Haitians. An unwritten rule, established in an earlier time, was abandoned, that no Haitian approached the communion rail until the last American left.

<2> Good Friday in Croix des Boisquettes

On Good Friday in Port-au-Prince in 1960 we held a service for the English language congregation in the Chapel of St. Vincent’s School for the Handicapped, run by the Boston-based Sisters of Saint Margaret. The small chapel held about twenty persons, and two of the nun’s dogs paraded about like vergers, and then slept under the altar. After the service, some of us visited Croix des Boisquettes, a hill outside town where Roman Catholic Good Friday processionals were held. On the way our car was stopped by a man in a red shirt blowing a police whistle, while dancers and musicians surrounded us. The strong smell of clairan, cheap local rum sold in old canning jars, perfumed the gathering. The leader did a quick step, then plopped his hat on the car for money, as his companions rocked the car, reminding us of what a lack of generosity might bring. I gave him a dollar, and the group danced off. The following week there were reports of a car being overturned by dancers at the same spot, unhappy that their overtures for payment were refused.

We left the car at Gantier, and walked along a dusty road. A large cross stood at the hill’s crest, and streams of people moved up and down the winding gullies to it. Fourteen wooden crosses as used by the Roman Catholic Church had been erected along the way. Soft drink vendors outnumbered the faithful in places. On the hilltop were three large wooden crosses, one with a large metal Christus figure. Faded paper and wax roses hung from its feet. To cover their bets voodoo followers had placed a pile of rocks and bits of cloth at the foot of the cross. A large woman stopped praying, drank from a jug of rum, and sprayed crosses, statues, and nearby stones like a fire hose.

Standing on top of the dusty hill as the wind whipped through the nearby scrub growth, I listened to the murmuring incantations and, in the fading light, watched a growing crowd carrying candles, descending like flowing lava into villages on each side of the hill. As we left, evening fires were lit across the horizon, glowing coals warmed heavy iron pots; a husky-voiced vendor yelled “paté chaud” and the evening’s voodoo ritual began in earnest.

<3> Visiting Rural Parishes in Haiti’s South

In early September of that year the Dean of the Cathedral, Roger Desir, and I went by mule and horseback through mountain gullies to some of the rural missions near Leogane in Haiti’s south. Lay readers ran most of the small white stone and cement churches in the absence of a priest. At one church, village women took turns using a sewing machine, donated by a church in upstate New York, to make clothes for their children. In another, the priest had just returned from a rural mission and a heated discussion ensued with a lay reader. The priest had refused to baptize a couples’ child unless they married. This was their second child out of wedlock. The lay reader took the couple to another priest, and after misrepresenting the case, presented the child for baptism. The original priest and Dean rebuked the lay reader, who was content to sit on the church step with a sheepish grin. They would soon leave, he would remain. I asked the Dean why such a person’s credentials would not be revoked, but the Dean said the lay reader had been a figure in the community for many years and the priest had only been there four months.

One mountain later we met Nepthalie St. Marc, a lay reader for forty years. He, and his father before him, had been active in St. John the Evangelist Church, Petit Harpon, where Nepthalie read services each Sunday, buried the dead, ran a school, and sponsored a medical clinic. In addition, he was a prosperous coffee farmer, as were several lay readers in the south.

His hill top house had three rooms, one a bedroom with a small, lumpy bed, which I was offered, and an armoire holding three neat but well worn locally tailored suits. Nearby was his office with a hand-made table and several account books; in the dining room a glass-front cupboard held pictures of family, friends, newly-wed couples, and one of Christ standing behind President Duvalier, his hand on Duvalier’s shoulder, saying, “People, believe in him; I have chosen him…Peace to Haiti for men of goodwill.”

Our evening meal was stewed chicken. Our host insisted on keeping the windows shuttered to “keep the bad night air out.” Meanwhile, a mud-caked longhaired dog smelling like an open garbage pit huddled under the dining room table. I tried to gently edge him out and was greeted each time with a primordial grow; this had been his place for years. Twice I tried to open the window, saying I wanted to admire the evening sunset; twice Nepthalie, fast on his feet and quick to shut the window, met me. “The night air is bad for you,” he said, puzzled that anyone would think otherwise.

The next morning we rang the old train bell an American parish had sent to Petit Harpon, and within half an hour, more than fifty persons walked slowly up from the fields for the communion service. The landscape resembled the setting of an Italian Renaissance painting set in the tropics. The Dean celebrated, using still warm freshly baked bread, and one of the lay readers read the lessons in the darkened chapel, wearing his wrap-around sunglasses with the price tag and brand name still attached, a sign of affluence.

<4> The Mountain Clinic of Bel Ange Désir

Later that morning we continued by donkey to another lay reader’s house. My donkey had been trying to dump me for three days and finally succeeded. As we crossed a ridge, I leaned forward, providing the moment he had dreamt of, and slowly lowering his front legs to the ground, he deposited knapsack, canteen, and me into a gully while the village laughed uproariously. In the late afternoon we arrived at the home of an herbalist and lay reader, Bel Ange Désir, who supervised an attractive chapel and small hospital where he gave his herbal remedies to ten patients. As we left Beautiful Angel of Desire’s place of healing, a man called the Devil’s Cowboy followed us. Sweating, and with glazed eyes and a loud voice, he mocked us. We passed a house where two men played checkers on the front porch, but both turned their backs to him. Across the path was the small chapel. Its interior decorated with voodoo emblems, and obviously used for a recent ceremony. The Dean angrily tore down the paper voodoo flags and told the Devil’s Cowboy to stay out of the church. Bel Ange Désir then chased the Devil’s Cowboy down a hill, threateningly waving his machete, and ending the confrontation.

<5> Bishop Vogeli is Expelled

Under Duvalier’s divisive leadership, bands of state-sponsored thugs, the ton-ton macoutte, roamed about freely as vigilante bands, loyal only to their sponsors, like the condottiere of Italian city-states. An Episcopal priest with political aspirations was among their victims. The principal of the Episcopal High School was jailed for several days without explanation. Pierre, a Haitian lawyer, whose life revolved around memories of a year spent in London as a law student, and whose treasure of treasures was a small British car he had purchased from his small stipend, disappeared during one of the times of martial law. Pierre had helped found the Haitian-American English Teachers’ Association, and his killing was my second, but not my last, encounter with a political death. Newspapers were closed, radio stations silenced. Bishop Vogeli was a strong leader in a difficult setting. Once, when the high school’s principal was seized by the police and disappeared without warning the bishop in full purple and white cassock, showed up at the school and sat in the principal’s chair for two days until the school director was released. A realist, he set out to maintain the church’s presence in a difficult political climate, seeking neither confrontation nor capitulation.

The Bishop was expelled from Haiti on short notice. The reason was he failed to appear on New Year’s Day 1966 with the civic leaders who each year were expected to come in person to publicly offer their greetings to the President. The presence or absence of individuals from the New Year’s ceremony at the Palace was an indication of whether or not they supported the President. In this case, Duvalier believed the Church was snubbing him. In reality, the invitation arrived at the Bishop’s office the day after the ceremony was over, as the Haitian mails were non-existent and messengers delivered all such invitations. When he left, the Bishop had every opportunity to castigate Duvalier, but he made no public statements, working instead for the church from exile in Brooklyn. He came to West Redding, Connecticut., for the baptism of our son, Christopher. Appearing in a red cope and miter decorated with embroidery of the plants and flowers of Haiti, he filled the small white clapboard New England church with color.

The Rev. Dr. Frederick Quinn served as an American diplomat in Haiti, 1959-1961. His reminiscences are taken from a forthcoming spiritual autobiography, Merrily I Made My Way. The author of fourteen books on law, history, and religion, he is a former chaplain at Washington National Cathedral.

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