Our Lady of the Visitation, Gonaives, Haiti
Haiti occupies the western one-third of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. It shares its eastern border with the Dominican Republic. It is slightly smaller than Maryland. It gained its independence from France in 1804 by a revolt of the slaves who had been brought from Africa. Haiti has been plagued by political unrest and is now the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
The population is over 8,000,000 with a life expectancy of 66 years and high infant and maternal mortality rates. About one in eight children dies before his or her fifth birthday. About 80% of the population lives in abject poverty on less than $2 a day.
The once fertile land (called "The Pearl of the Caribbean" in the past) is now heavily deforested with poor soil. Unemployment is widespread with lack of skilled labor. Over 50% of the adult population is illiterate.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore has had a relationship with the Diocese of Gonaives for over a decade. Following several trips to Haiti, Cardinal Keeler designated Gonaives as a sister diocese of the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 1997.
Diocese of Gonaives
The Diocese of Gonaives corresponds to the borders of the Department of the Artibonite. The two largest cities of the Diocese are Gonaives and St. Marc. The Chancery is in the city of Gonaives.
The population of the Diocese is about 1,500,000 with about 50% practicing Catholics. Most of the economy in the Diocese revolves around agriculture: subsistence farming on small plots and rice culture in the irrigated Artibonite Plain.
Each parish has one main parish church, usually in the largest population center of the parish. The name of the parish takes its name from that main church.
There are several chapels (missions) spread out in the smaller population centers of the parish. Those chapels are usually very rudimentary places of worship (a few palm fronds over a makeshift altar) and hard to reach in a country where roads are either non-existent or in disrepair.
Most parishes have only one priest.
The territory of the parish is often very large and many pastors do not own a vehicle.
Most chapels cannot be reached by car, only by foot. Some chapels can be visited by the priest only a few times a year. The small number of priests in the parish centers cannot fulfill the spiritual needs in the chapels. Therefore, there is a great need for catechists and sacristans. Those lay people are the ones who organize worship services on Sunday. They are recruited in the chapels, trained at the parish center and sent back to the chapels to celebrate the Liturgy of the Word.
The lay community is very active in the parishes: several groups in the parish center have liturgical responsibilities. These groups are less developed in the chapels.