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 CNS Story:

HAITI-ENGINEERS Apr-9-2010 (700 words) With photos. xxxi

Engineers begin assessing ways rebuild destroyed Haitian parishes

An interior view of the destroyed Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption is seen in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in early February. (CNS/Bob Roller)

By Dennis Sadowski
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Traveling along the dusty roads in the mountains southwest of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, Maryland engineer Larry Newman tried to imagine what the future might hold for thousands of Haitians left homeless by January's massive earthquake.

Newman's focus was on helping Haitians regain a sense of belonging and comfort. With guidance from the Haitian Catholic bishops' conference, the way to do that, it was suggested, was through their parishes. The question remained: How?

"The whole idea is to re-establish the church as community down here," Newman told Catholic News Service by phone April 8 as he traveled from Port-au-Prince to the coastal community of Jacmel to the south as part of a weeklong trip to assess local needs. "The bishops are trying to guide us in terms of where they think the church needs to rebuild."

Newman, president of Spatial Systems Associates Inc., in Columbia, Md., was among a group of representatives from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, including Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, Fla., Catholic Relief Services and the Haitian bishops' conference traveling throughout the earthquake-ravaged region of the Caribbean nation.

The entourage was in Haiti the week of April 5 and visited several parish sites identified as key locales in Port-au-Prince, Leogane, Jacmel and the nearby mountain villages near the epicenter of the magnitude 7 quake southwest of the capital. In each case, little of a church or school remained standing, but a significant parish community remained where local priests continue their ministry and celebrate Mass regularly under tarps or in the open.

The visit was arranged by the Haiti Advisory Group of the U.S. bishops' Subcommittee on the Church in Latin America. The advisory group has been working since shortly after the earthquake on ways to best meet the needs of the church and the Haitian people.

"Part of our visit is to get an on-the-ground impression of the challenges of the church and rebuilding its infrastructure," Bishop Wenski explained to CNS in an interview from Haiti April 8. "We hope that this fact-gathering mission will enable us to more strategically place our very limited resources."

Those resources include $60 million raised in special collections in U.S. parishes since January. While the amount sounds significant, it's far short of the amount the Haitian church needs to rebuild the large numbers of churches, parish centers, chapels and church-run schools severely damaged or destroyed by the quake, said Oblate Father Andrew Small, director of the Collection for the Church in Latin America for the U.S. bishops.

To get some rebuilding under way, the advisory group drafted a proposal that concludes that parishes are centers of community life, Father Small explained. The proposal was prepared in cooperation with the Haitian bishops' conference and Archbishop Bernardito Auza, papal nuncio to Haiti.

While not a formal reconstruction plan, the document offers a basic framework through which the U.S. and Haitian churches can begin to address the massive reconstruction needs of parishes in the earthquake zone.

The idea is to get several key parishes up and running as quickly as possible and to get schools functioning so young people can begin to experience some normalcy in their lives and where people can gather in a safe place in weather emergencies, the document said.

"This is about gaining momentum focused on church communities which have been battered and decimated and also imperiled as far as the living of the faith is concerned," Father Small told CNS.

The proposal also calls for each construction project to be similar in design so each parish or chapel site can be completed quickly and without massive reengineering.

Haitians would be hired under the "cash for work" concept to build the structures in each community.

For Newman, who has worked for several years with CRS, to digitally map its project sites, the destruction caused by the earthquake was beyond comparison with anything he has ever seen.

"A lot of (the destruction) we're seeing down here is a result of the construction techniques that have been used over the years in the absence of building codes," he said. "One of the things the church wants to make sure is what gets rebuilt is rebuilt to international standards."


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