No hope without religious

PORT-AU-PRINCE — A Quebecer visiting Collège Saint-Louis de Bourdon once said to headmistress Sr. Elza Luc that he had never before seen such a beautiful school.

In fact, this school, run by the Montreal-based Sisters of Charity of St. Louis, is an enclave of peace in chaotic Port-au-Prince. Several well-designed pavilions, painted in vibrant shades of green, surround a flawlessly paved courtyard. It is home to the chatter of 700 students. 

Tuition is less than $50 a month, and only $30 for domestic child workers. In Haiti, a multitude of parents send their children to work for rich families as housekeepers once they turn 6 years old. 

Domestic child workers follow a different schedule at school, explains Sr. Luc. “They arrive in the afternoon, after they finish work. Their education is paid by their employers.”

Collège Saint-Louis de Bourdon is self-financing and exemplifies the vital role that religious men and women play in Haiti's education sector, where government involvement is largely absent. 

“The government does not assume 15 per cent of the education requirements,'' estimates Colette Lespinasse. The former journalist now directs the Support Group for Refugees and Repatriated Persons. “Without the Catholic and Protestant churches, many children would not be going to school.” 

Here, the mission of religious men and women to provide social support is obvious as every parish has its own parochial school and a health centre. 

Schools run by religious communities are prestigious and esteemed by parents; but they are not free from criticism. No matter how much they flourish, the illiteracy rate in Haiti remains above 50 per cent, a social factor that contributes to the corruption among the ruling class.

“We have the best teachers, the best schools, and yet our presence is not felt (at the national level),” said diocesan priest Fr. William Smarth. 

Fr. André-Paul Garraud, CSV, president of the Haitian Religious Conference lamented that religious communities work independently of each other and said he believes religious communities in education should collaborate more. “We are a force in education; we must work together,” he said. 

A meeting of Haitian and Canadian religious men and women, held last spring, led to a unanimous commitment to “intercongregational” collaboration on reconstruction projects in Haiti. In particular, they discussed the creation of an association of religious schools.

“If religious men and women decided together to offer free primary education, it would be a prophetic intercongregational action,” said Fr. Godefroy Midy, SJ, a lecturer at the session.

In Haiti, some people are coming to believe that now is the time for concerted action in education. The new Haitian president, Michel Martelly, has promised free education. 

This past summer, he created the National Fund for Education, as well as a school grants program, which would give 146,000 poor children access to education this year. 

“At any rate, Martelly will not make it without the religious communities,” said Fr. Smarth.

Sophie Brouillet