Effort to rebuild Port-au-Prince cathedral gets a guide

A coordinated plan to rebuild the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti‘s world-famous Cathédrale Sainte Trinité (Holy Trinity Cathedral) in Port-au-Prince is getting underway.

Haiti Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin has asked Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe Bishop Pierre Whalon to guide what is expected to be a multi-step, multi-year and multi-million-dollar effort.

It is hoped that the cathedral project can be a model of the sort of cooperation that Haiti has said it wants to promote among its partners as the numerically largest diocese of the Episcopal Church develops and implements its plan to rebuild following the devastating magnitude-7 earthquake of Jan. 12.

The first step for those who want to help Haitian Episcopalians, Whalon said in a telephone interview from Paris, is to “adopt a much more Christian-family point of view. It’s their house that got torn down. They have to say how they want to rebuild it.”

The next step for what is being called the Partners with Haiti project is connecting with people who want to help, Whalon said. He has already appointed a small steering committee to expand upon a desire among members of the American Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Paris and elsewhere to aid in the rebuilding, Whalon said. The bishop, president of the Francophone Network of the Anglican Communion, said that many other French-speaking Episcopalians and Anglicans have already pledged their support.

Once the diocese has envisioned a new cathedral, the next step will be helping the diocese solicit an architect that can turn that vision into an actual building, Whalon said. He suggested that there would be some “non-negotiables” involved in the choice of architects, including experience building churches and earthquake-resistant structures, and being willing to commit to having a long-term physical presence in Haiti, to employing Haitian workers and to teaching local architects about earthquake-resistant design and construction techniques.

But first comes the listening, Whalon said.

“We have to be the friend of the Haitians rather than telling them how it’s going to be,” he said. “There are a lot of people there now saying ‘this is what we’re going to do for you’ and aren’t really asking ‘is this what you want us to do for you?'”

“We simply cannot continue to think of Haiti as people who are dependent on outsiders. That’s how they were considered to be when they were slaves,” he said. “They couldn’t think for themselves and if they had any inkling that they could, that was taken care of pretty quickly.”

Calling Whalon “the right person to guide this effort,” the Rev. Lauren Stanley, an appointed Episcopal Church missionary to Haiti and Duracin’s liaison in the U.S., told ENS that “Bishop Duracin has entrusted Bishop Whalon to guide the effort to rebuild the cathedral, in great part because he has promised to listen and that the cathedral will be rebuilt according to what the Haitians want.”

Part of that listening, Whalon said, has to do with waiting for Haitian Episcopalians to develop a complete master plan for rebuilding all of their diocese. Duracin has spoken repeatedly about the ongoing work involved in formulating the plan, most recently in a March 5 letter to the church. Whalon predicted that the diocese’s eventual plan will dovetail with the Haitian government’s rebuilding efforts.

While some people may wonder about the progress being made more than three months after the quake struck, Whalon suggested that “people need to be very patient because you’re talking about rebuilding an entire nation from the ground up. Therefore, the things closest to the ground are the things that need to be dealt with now” such as sanitation, hurricane-resistant temporary housing, restoration of the educational system and electrical power generation.

“There’s a hierarchy of needs here and the most basic [of them] need to be met first,” he said, adding that many people are calling for a rethinking of how those basic services were provided before the earthquake and how changes can be included in the rebuilding.

Whalon said that the project’s pledge to listen to and respond to Haitian Episcopalians’ desires for rebuilding “is crucial in terms of this project being a model for the reconstruction of the country as well as the diocese.”

Holy Trinity was established in Port-au-Prince during Pentecost, May 25, 1863. Its church has since been destroyed six times, often by fire. The cathedral destroyed in the earthquake dated to the 1920s.

World-famous frescoes adorned the walls of that cathedral building. The paintings, completed in 1950-51, portrayed biblical stories in Haitian motifs and were crafted by some of the best-known Haitian painters of the 20th century. Portions of only a few of the frescoes are still standing among the ruins, including the baptism of Christ and, possibly, the Last Supper. Photos of the destruction of the cathedral can be seen here.

The cathedral is still operating on the site, albeit without walls. Whalon preached at Holy Trinity earlier this month, standing in what Duracin is calling the diocese’s “open-air cathedral.” It consists of some plastic sheeting stretched over a frame of two-by-fours that shelters some pews rescued from the cathedral ruins. A week later Whalon preached the same sermon at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

The bishop told ENS that a fund for Haiti reconstruction, called for at the February meeting of the church’s Executive Council, could prove to be an excellent way to coordinate efforts to aid the Diocese of Haiti’s rebuilding in general and Holy Trinity in particular.

“My eye is set on that fund as the locus for fundraising so that it all goes to one place and we all know what we have,” he said.

As the effort continues to jell, Whalon plans to brief the March 19-24 House of Bishops meeting about the project, and the Very Rev. Zachary Fleetwood, dean of the American Cathedral in Paris, will do the same at the April 15-19 North American Cathedral Deans Association Conference.
Stanley echoed Whalon’s larger hopes for the project. “Our hope is that, as we begin to rebuild after we develop our master plan, our partnerships will improve and will become more of a true partnership that will last for decades,” she said. “What we want to do is to have each player at the table be a full partner listening to each other, caring for each other and working together hand-in-hand.”

“We have a good partnership program; we want to improve it,” she added. “We know that many of our partners are frustrated sometimes because of the linguistic challenges and the communications challenges and we are hoping that in strengthening the partnership program we will lessen frustrations on both sides and increase our ability to work together as brothers and sisters in Christ.”

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is a national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service and Episcopal News Monthly editor.

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