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Joy overflows in Little Haiti

Notre Dame d'Haiti Mission dedicates new church, first building erected by community


Parishioners react as Archbishop Thomas Wenski walks into Notre Dame d'Haiti Church for the dedication Mass.

Photographer: MONICA LAUZURIQUE | FC

Parishioners react as Archbishop Thomas Wenski walks into Notre Dame d'Haiti Church for the dedication Mass.

MIAMI | The joy was so great in Little Haiti Feb. 1 that it could not be contained within four walls — even if they were the history-making, cream-colored, stained-glass-windowed walls of Notre Dame d’Haiti’s new church: the first new building erected by and for the Haitian community in Miami.

Young ushers clad in white blouses and black skirts struggled to contain the throngs that began arriving at 1 p.m. for the 7 p.m. ceremony. The people pushed against the new church’s glass doors and crowded against windows hoping for a seat or a peek inside.

Father Reginald Jean-Mary shows the keys to the new church at the start of the Mass of dedication.

Photographer: MONICA LAUZURIQUE | FC

Father Reginald Jean-Mary shows the keys to the new church at the start of the Mass of dedication.

When the 1,200 ticketed parishioners and guests filled their new worship space and its 166-seat chapel, the overflow crowded into their old, 700-seat worship space and filled the outside lawn. They watched the dedication Mass on giant screens and lingered long past its 10:30 p.m. conclusion, extending the party for as long as possible.

“I couldn’t tell you. I’m so happy,” said a nearly speechless Alice St. Jean, former office manager at the mission, as she waited for the Mass to begin. “Every single person is happy.”

“I’ve been part of every youth group that you can think of,” said Jean Souffrant, who joined Notre Dame d’Haiti when came from Haiti in 1991 at age 13 and eventually became events director and fundraiser for the $5 million project.

“Now I’m seeing the fruit of that labor,” he said, describing the fundraising and building process that began in 2005 but only picked up steam in 2011.

“It never got easier to raise funds. But what did happen is that the community began to realize what it means to erect a church like this in a corner of Little Haiti. This church is a symbol of what keeps the Haitian people together,” Souffrant said. “This is not just the dream of a person. This became the dream of an entire community. Today, it’s an entire community that rejoices.”

Both Souffrant and the mission’s administrator, Father Reginald Jean-Mary, recall receiving donations from parishioners and non-parishioners, Catholics and non-Catholics. The money came in dribs of as little as 60 cents from a child and gushes of as much as $7,777 — a biblically perfect number — from a Baptist pastor’s son. Economically successful Haitian-American doctors and lawyers donated, as did working-class people supporting parents and children back home, and elderly pensioners subsisting on Social Security.

“It was just a crazy dream” back in 2005, said Father Jean-Mary, who arrived in Notre Dame just after his ordination in 2001, serving first as parochial vicar. He became administrator in 2004.

Young parishioners process into church in typically rhythmic Haitian style.

Photographer: MONICA LAUZURIQUE | FC

Young parishioners process into church in typically rhythmic Haitian style.

Groundbreaking for the new church took place in 2008. Then the economy went into a tailspin and an earthquake practically leveled Haiti’s capital.

“I could not talk about money in this church at all,” Father Jean-Mary said, describing it as “two years of deep suffering for me.”

He sought solace with Miami’s late Auxiliary Bishop Agustín Román, who told him, “‘Don’t worry. It will happen. Not in your time but in God’s time.’ That’s when I felt basically I let go and let God take charge of this project,” Father Jean-Mary said.

He began a prayer service every Tuesday and Thursday solely for the intention of the new church. And even when “God’s time” came and the building was complete, he relied on God’s providence for the finishing touch: $123,000 worth of pews.

No way this church — with an $87,000 Italian marble altar, a single stained glass window that cost $52,000, and a total of 25 stained-glass window memorials, all paid for — was going to be dedicated with plastic chairs in the nave.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski rubs the oil of chrism on the altar of Notre Dame d'Haiti Church.

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

Archbishop Thomas Wenski rubs the oil of chrism on the altar of Notre Dame d'Haiti Church.

Having such a church is important because of “the dignity it brings to the community,” Father Jean-Mary said. “It’s the first building that we have erected in Miami.”

Notre Dame is also Little Haiti’s heart and soul, the priest said. Many of its parishioners come from as far south as Homestead and as far north as Fort Lauderdale because it’s the church they first called home.

“The church is a testimony of our faith and it is a symbol of our unity as a nation. This is the living room of the Haitian community — Notre Dame d’Haiti. Good times and bad times, the community gathers at Notre Dame,” Father Jean-Mary said.

Even the church’s architect, Peter Kosinski of Kosinski Architecture Inc., said he was impressed by the faith of Little Haiti’s Catholics.

“Working with these people is so encouraging, starting with Father Reggie who never gives up. He just kept the family moving toward this point in time,” said Kosinski, a Catholic who also designed St. Mark in Southwest Ranches, St. Gregory in Plantation, St. Patrick on Miami Beach and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Coral Springs.

“What you see is almost a small miracle,” Kosinski added. “We went for it all. We worked hard. And it’s just incredible what they were able to achieve. The Blessed Virgin Mary had a lot to do with it. She wanted it. This is her church.”

Congresswoman Frederica Wilson and Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe bow their heads in prayer at the start of the Mass.

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

Congresswoman Frederica Wilson and Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe bow their heads in prayer at the start of the Mass.

The historic significance of the occasion was evident in the assembled guests, who included Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, U.S. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jean Monestime, and Pat Santangelo, who handles public affairs for Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado. Carvalho and Santangelo regularly attend Notre Dame d’Haiti.

No less joyous than the people was the celebrant of the Mass, Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who has been associated with Miami’s Haitian community since 1979, when their meeting place was nearby St. Mary Cathedral and Corpus Christi Church. In 1981, after Notre Dame d’Haiti Mission was founded on the grounds of the old Notre Dame Academy for girls, Father Wenski became its administrator. He remained until 1997, when was named auxiliary bishop of Miami.

His concelebrants included Miami’s Archbishop Emeritus John C. Favalora; Port-au-Prince Archbishop Guire Poulard; its current and former auxiliary bishops, Quesnel Alphonse and Joseph Lafontant; Gonaives Bishop Yves-Marie Pean; Bishop Guy Sansaricq, the Haitian-born auxiliary bishop emeritus of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and a surprise visitor from Rome: Archbishop Pietro Marini, former master of ceremonies to Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI and currently president of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses.

There were also delegations of Haitians from Boston, New York and Montreal, along with more than 60 Haitian priests from throughout the U.S. and Haiti. Island TV carried the ceremony live and streamed it on its website.

“This church has always been a symbol” for the Haitian people, Archbishop Wenski told the press before the start of the Mass. “This church is like a light of hope. When they came here to Notre Dame, they felt at home.”

While walking through the church before the start of the Mass, the archbishop got a big hug from a Haitian whose art he had commissioned three decades ago: Alex Jean Altidor, currently of Coral Springs, created the colorful mural that adorns the old Notre Dame d’Haiti worship space — the former cafeteria of the all-girls high school.

The mural depicts the mountains of Haiti and the shores of South Florida with the sea, a plane and a boat in between. Above them all is an image of Haiti’s patroness, Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

“We Haitians, we discriminate (against) ourselves,” Altidor said, explaining that Haitians who had arrived by boat often were looked down upon by those who had arrived by plane.

“I want you to paint this on the wall,” Father Wenski had told him back then, to get the message across that “boat people, plane people, we are all refugees” — and that Our Lady of Perpetual Help loves and watches over everyone.

When he heard a new church had been built, Altidor contacted Father Jean-Mary and offered to paint a similar mural on one of its walls.

“I said, ‘Lord, would I see this?’ 32 years ago. It’s happening. That’s a blessing. Praise the Lord,” Altidor said.

A boat is also depicted on one of the new stained glass windows, some of which are still being completed.

“That was a big stigma to people of Notre Dame,” explained Father Jean-Mary. “It’s the reason I put the boat there, to remind them of the journey.”
Haitian dancers sway to a gentle beat at the beginning of the Mass to dedicate Notre Dame d'Haiti's new church.

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

Haitian dancers sway to a gentle beat at the beginning of the Mass to dedicate Notre Dame d'Haiti's new church.


Comments from readers

Bro. James DePiro - 02/06/2014 05:36 AM
It was truly an honor to be part of this tremendously spiritual event. The Spirit was truly alive in the faith community. I congratulate all that were involved In this event, but more so for those whose sole contributions were faith and prayer - those two gifts alone made this possible.
Josephine Gilbert - 02/06/2014 01:36 AM
A Beautiful Church, Congratulations Fr. Reginald and to all the parishioners.
God makes all things beautiful in his time.

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