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Published: Wednesday, 1/12/2011

Sylvania nuns reflect on Haiti disaster

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Sister Josephine Dybza felt God walking with her as she witnessed large-scale death after a massive earthquake struck a year ago Wednesday and killed a quarter of a million people. She came to rely on what she calls the “little resurrection moments” that would save her emotionally.

About 10 days after the quake, the bodies of 200 children were still inside the shell of a Catholic church and school. The walls fell in on them, and because there was no place to take them, they rested there.

Some died inside the church portion; perhaps they were praying. Others perished in the school as they worked for better futures than their parents had. To visit the church and the children became like a religious pilgrimage for some, Sister Josephine, a member of the Sylvania-based Sisters of St. Francis, said.

“We felt the need to go into that presence and pray. As we stood in the rubble, we could feel the strength of those who had passed away and also the faith we had that in this place of rubble new life would come up,” she told The Blade in a phone interview Tuesday.

Sister Josephine Dybza and Sister Fidelis Rubio of the Sylvania-based Sisters of St. Francis. Sister Josephine Dybza and Sister Fidelis Rubio of the Sylvania-based Sisters of St. Francis.
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She and her partner in the religious order, Sister Fidelis Rubbo, also based in the Toledo area, spend six months or more working on a mission in the third-world country.

After the earthquake, they traveled from their home base in a grouping of rural mountain villages to help in and around urban Port-au-Prince. They worked at a children's hospital and an orphanage for children with disabilities.

The 60-something nuns saw the worst kind of losses — parentless children and childless parents, people dying slowly, missing limbs, and some catching fatal diseases.

“We kept seeing these small resurrection moments, a depressed child with some stimulation with art or just being with that child, and we saw a smile. Those are the little resurrection moments,” Sister Josephine said. “It taught us that even if there is trauma and death, we still believe in the resurrection, even now.”

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, an often politically outspoken retired Detroit cleric, has made six trips to Haiti since the quake, most recently in December.

There are countless needs, he said, but the most urgent is political change.

“There's just no leadership down there in the government, and now the elections are being postponed again, which means the people are not going to have the opportunity to put somebody back in office that they really want,” he told The Blade. “The main party, the one that really speaks for the poor, was ruled out of the election and that's because of the acquiescence of the United Nations.”

The 80-year-old Catholic bishop, who spoke in Sylvania on Sunday, said parts of quake-damaged buildings could topple at any time.

“The buildings are still half up, half down, and it's a very dangerous situation because the least tremor and these buildings will come crashing down and more people will be killed.”

More than 1.3 million people are “living in the streets for all practical purposes with no running water, no electricity, everyone's overcrowded, and everything turns to mud when it rains. It's hard for anyone to truly understand what people are going through unless you've been there,” he said.

Many of the churches were destroyed, and priests have been holding Mass in the encampments.

“They are meeting the people where they are,” he said.

Lots of people do go to help, he said. But media coverage is in “spurts,” he said. “Recently there's been a bit more coverage because it's getting close to the first anniversary. That helps. But there are times when there's nothing, and people forget what's going on.”

A year later, and the sisters continue their mission.

The country rebuilds, it's always rebuilding, as it continues to bury its dead as the populace endures a cholera outbreak, inevitable after the sudden lack of proper sanitation and clean drinking water.

Tent cities dot the countryside, even at the end of deserted roads, Sister Fidelis said.

The sisters work as part of a larger group called Christians Progress Together, which is ecumenical, meaning it accepts anybody willing to help, regardless of denomination. Little Flower Catholic Church on Dorr Street is a partner and sends donations.

Sister Fidelis said that each of the 14 villages in the charity's sphere of service chooses three volunteer villagers to send to monthly meetings. They are delegated to “help us to know what they need. They choose the projects.”

Lately, the sisters helped open a small clinic in the mountains that serves some people who walk five or six hours for medical treatment for malaria or fever or dehydration, among other third-world conditions. “Health care is one of the reasons people were dying up in the mountains without the simplest kind of health care for pregnant women, children with fevers, and children with malnutrition,” she said. “We're giving the people some hope.”

Sister Fidelis also prayed that day among the dead children in the church.

In her moments of doubt, she gathers strength from the people. At times in her life she has “questioned the presence of evil in the presence of a good and loving God that I firmly believe in,” she said, looking back at the quake and her time in the country.

“I talked to a lot of friends and made some retreats. I know that God is taking care of the people, and I have to let go of the people I saw after the earthquake, who were so hurting and needy and who died,” she said. “The people of Haiti are a witness to me; an inspiration to me. When they say, ‘Trust in God,' when they say they are trusting in God, they are really living it. They have really profound faith. They are growing my faith by their example.”



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