History of Our Mission
It was a school cafeteria, but to South Florida’s Haitian immigrants it would soon become the place to celebrate their faith, fight for their rights, mourn those swallowed by the sea and unite as a community.
Philippe Jean discovered Corpus Christi in 1974 where Catholic Haitians first worshipped in Miami. Later the small community of Corpus Christi joined the larger community of St. Mary. A group of Haitians grew to 50 members gathered first at Corpus Christi in the late 1973 under the direction of Fr. Charles Jackson an African American who spoke some French. With the assistance of a Haitian sister celebrated the Eucharist every Sunday afternoon. This was the only service available specifically for Haitians in the Archdiocese until April of 1977.
In 1977, a 4:00 PM Mass was added at St. Mary’s Cathedral. Fr. Marcel Peloquin was sent to the Archdiocese in 1979 and said Mass at Corpus Christi and St. Mary’s. Fr. Thomas Wenski joined the Haitian Ministry in mid September 1979. At that time, they began a 9:00 AM Mass in Cathedral Hall in addition to Corpus Christi and the 4:00 PM at St. Mary’s. Fr. Wenski also took the initiative to offer Mass at 4:00 PM an outreach in the Belle Glade area. On the first Sunday of the month, Fr. Wenski with Alice Maxi (Saint Jean), Boniface Laurent, Nicole Semexant (Ganthier) and others would drive to Belle Glade to offer Mass at 4:00 PM at St. Philip Benizi Church. Attendance varied between 20 and 50 people. In December 1979, lay minister Alice Maxi was hired. At that time, Nicole Semexant began an English language class
In 1980, Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy founded and blessed the Pierre Toussaint Haitian Catholic Center(old rectory in front of cathedral now razed) in order to establish more effective pastoral care for South Florida’s Haitian community. At that time, they also began to celebrate Masses in Belle Glade, Immokalee, Pompano Beach and Ft. Lauderdale. Principally responsible for establishment of these services and programs had been Fr. Wenski. In addition to Fr. Wenski, an Archdiocesan priest, the Center counts the assistance of Fr. Marcel Peloquin, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate and a veteran of 27 years of experience in Haiti as a missionary, Fr. Gerard Darbouze (1980), a priest from the Diocese of les Cayes in Haiti, Fr. Albert Saindoux, a priest from the diocese of Jeremie in Haiti, Fr. Mike Hann, a Canadian-born missionary priest located in Palm Beach County, Sister Agnes of Assisi, a native Haitian nun, and catechist, Alice Maxi (Saint Jean).
In January of 1980, the Haitian community moved into their new center across from the Cathedral. The timing was providential – in that month during a single week, more than 1000 Haitians arrived on Florida Shores. Having an identifiable center spurned the growth of the Haitian Apostolate. Apostolic groups were formed: joining the Legion of Mary founded by Fr. Hamel were JOC (Young Catholic Workers) and the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Krome Avenue became a place to receive Haitians and in July of 1980 Fr. Wenski began to celebrate Mass every Thursday afternoon. Haitians arrivals with TB were confined at the Holly Hospital in Lantana, so Fr. Wenski celebrated Mass there on Wednesdays.
In August of 1980, Fr. Gerard Darbouze joined the Haitian ministry. In September 1980, Fr. Wenski began an outreach to the Delray area – picking up Haitians along the “rangeline” and bringing there to mass at Our Lady Queen of Peace on Wednesday evenings, accompanied by Alice Saint Jean, Boniface Laurent, Nicole Ganthier, Joanel Ceramy, David Sineue, Toussaint, and others.
In 1981, it was difficult at times to find adequate space at the Center and the Cathedral for the many activities and meetings held for and by the Haitians. This year also brought about continued growth in the ministry. The English school begun by Nicole Ganthier in mid 1979 for 12 students had expanded to 10 times that many – three nights a week some eight classrooms at St. Mary’s were used to teach Haitians English. Also during 1981, a series of three days missions were preached to outreach Haitians outside the Miami area at Immokalee, Ruskin, Indiantown, and Winter Haven by Fr. Wenski accompanied by Boniface, Alice and others. To serve both social and religious needs of the faithful, the late Emeritus Archbishop Edward McCarthy moved the mission from St. Mary to what was Notre Dame Academy for Girls. The proposed possibility became a reality in August of 1981.
With absolutely no financial resources and the barest of essentials with which to work, Fr. Wenski issued a plea. And help came, young, old and in between, men and women turned a Cafeteria into a Sanctuary. Each morning as the sun rose, they were there: Priest and Lay People, raking, hammering, scrubbing, sweeping, until the sun set, indicated Toussaint. Parking areas and driveways were paved.
When Notre-Dame was still a girls’ school, Notre-Dame Academy, the Haitians would celebrate Christmas Eve Mass in the school’s cafeteria (now the present church); in fact, Fr. Wenski remembers doing that in 1979. The school closed in June of 1981. The faithful started saying Mass there in August of that year. Archbishop McCarthy came to celebrate an “official opening Mass” in November of that year. That Mass was held outside – on what was the basketball courts.
A picnic also took place to commemorate this important milestone. More than 100 people celebrated Mass that day, stated Boniface Laurent who has begun his ministry at St. Mary’s. There was feasting at the picnic — and mourning. Thirty-three Haitians had drowned off the Florida Coast.
The Pierre Toussaint was also being located in the heart of Miami’s Little Haiti, and recognized as one of the most institutions serving the Haitians, offering religious services daily and on Sundays in the Notre Dame d’Haiti Mission adjacent to the Center. Religious instruction, an active St. Vincent de Paul Society, various youth, prayer and reflection groups call forth leadership and the involvement of the community. The Notre Dame Center had outreaches in Pompano, Fort Lauderdale, Homestead and Opa Locka; religious service for Haitians detained at Krome Avenue Detention Center and the staff makes visitations at Jackson Memorial Hospital. It provided support service to the Haitian Ministry to the Diocese of Palm Beach. Daily and weekly radio broadcasts kept the Haitian community abreast of national events, the situation in Haiti, health and educational opportunities, immigration and employment information and public service announcement. Sunday evangelization program and news digest was distributed on cassettes along the Eastcoast migrant stream and across the USA, the Bahamas, Dominican Republic and French Guiana Fr. Wenski published a religious tabloid, Lavwa Katolik, the first Creole-language newspaper in the United States. It was published periodically during the year and reached not only those Haitians living in the greater Miami area but also Haitians working in the rural agricultural areas of Southern and Central Florida. The first initial run was about 15,000 copies. On Sunday June 7, the Haitian community saw the birth of the first Catholic Religious program in Creole over Miami’s airwaves. Express Publicite run by Carmelot Monestime began broadcasting a short three-minute segment of catechetical instruction taped by a member of the Notre Dame pastoral team. Short “mini-missions” played an important role in the Notre Dame Haitian Catholic Center’s
reaching-out to Haitians scattered throughout Florida. These missions brought together Haitians who had not had an opportunity to participate in a Mass in their own language since they had left Haiti. In Immokalee, one of the priests at the Center celebrated mass in Creole once a month. On the other Sundays, the Haitian community gathered at Our Lady of Guadeloupe to celebrate the liturgy of the Word and to pray led by a Haitian “sacristan” – a layman delegated as a minister of the Word. At St. Phillip Benizi in Belle Glade and Our Lady Queen of Peace in Delray permanent deacon, Emile Ambroise, coordinated this ministry for the Notre Dame. The first album of Haitian Youth Choir directed by Boniface Laurent and Michaelle Voltaire was produced.
On October 26, 1981, 33 Haitians drowned in the Atlantic a few hundred yards from the Florida shore. At a Catholic Mass of Christian burial at Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery, ten bodies were buried in graves donated by the Archdicoese of Miami. The funeral cortege was met by Fr. Marcel Peloquin of the newly established Notre Dame d’Haiti Mission in Little Haiti. A wood and iron crucifix was erected on Tuesday, November 4 in memory of Haitians who have drowned while attempting to sail to the United States.
Late 1981 and most of 1982 was taken up by the issue of Haitian detention. Several tragic drowning added pathos to the plight of Haitian refugee.. Many Haitians lived in constant fear because of their uncertain future. The deportees were recent arrivals and had been detained in the Krome Avenue Refugee Camp in West Dade County. Members of the Notre Dame pastoral team visited the camp every Friday and reported that the spirits of the more than 700 detainees were low. This time was also marked by further growth in the ministry: At Notre Dame, four masses were being celebrated each Sunday. A Sunday school administered to more than 150 children (approximately 75 children made their first communion and over 1000 babies were baptized). In that same year Fr. Wenski accompanied by the team of Notre Dame, preached three missions in outlying areas (West Palm, Wauchula, Homestead). As a result of these missions, permanent services were established and continued in West Palm and Homestead. A retired Haitian priest, Fr. Roland Lamy, joined the Notre Dame staff in late August and celebrated the liturgies in Fort Lauderdale and Pompano. A Vocational Training Program was begun. JTC was founded by Alice Maxi in 1981 and under the direction of Fr. Wenski in 1982, an African sister coached Annette Decius how to lead the youth group to the slow rhumba “Mime”.
In 1988, we saw the ordination of Fr. Jean Pierre to the priesthood at Notre Dame – First ordained Haitian priest for the Archdiocese of Miami.
In 1991, the Catholic Legal Aid for Haitians (CELAH) was founded by the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, a subsidiary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 1992, Fr. Wenski incorporated the Pierre Toussaint Haitian Catholic Center, Human Service Division, as an independent entity serving as the social service affiliate of Notre Dame Parish. In July of 1992, Fr. Kidney Saint-Jean was ordained to the diaconate at Notre Dame. In 1994 the Legal aid services for Haitians was relocated at the Pierre Toussaint Center. In that same year, under the direction of Randolph McGrorty and Myriam Mezadieu, staff of the legal services did outreaches to parishes within the archdiocese of Miami and in outlying areas (Fort Lauderdale, Pompano, West Palm, Homestead, Delray, Fort Pierce, BelleGlade, Immokalee, Orlando, Lake Worth). As a result of these legal outreaches, permanent legal services were established and continued in many of the outlying areas. In February 1996, Notre Dame led the first Haitian pilgrimage/excursion in the Archdiocese of Miami to the Holy Land.
After Fr. Wenski appointed a Bishop on June 24, 1997 with Episcopal ordination on September 3, 1997, Fr. Gerard Darbouze was appointed the pastor of Notre Dame, the first Haitian priest who began ministering to the Catholic faithful in South Florida, Archdiocese of Miami. In 1998 –the honorary title was bestowed upon Fr. Darbouze. Shortly after his arrival, a gate was erected in 1998 including a pilgrimage Center that was inaugurated on June 26, 2001. Gerard Pean and Rosel Lebreton took initiative to erect the pilgrimage center. The pastoral team included Fr. Leslie Jean and young ordained priest Fr. Reginald Jean-Mary (ordained to the priesthood in May 2001 and assigned as vicar in June 2001).
Two month-old ordained Fr. Jean-Mary organized the first fund raising dinner at FIU in 2001. He established many committees such as liturgy, hospitality, and many others. In October 2001, under his direction, the First Jericho started [pa gen anyen Bondie’m nan paka fe] – (Jericho is a seven-day spiritual revival hosted by Notre Dame – An opportunity for people to pray to God for deliverance from illnesses, economic problems and family strife. Each night begins with participants walking around the Church grounds while praying, a reminder of how God’s people were able to conquer Jericho by walking around the city’s walls for seven days).
In April 2003 – Fr. Reginald took the first initiative to call for the construction of a Shrine, a holy place to praise God, to honor Our Lady, to be the spiritual home of all Haitians, and to welcome all cultures and people of God. This beautiful initiative was taken after Fr. Reginald saw in a vision that the current mission building had been sunk into the ocean – He confronted Msgr. Darbouze that he would prevent the worse from happening. A raffle was initiated for that purpose, and a Mercedes was won by someone of different faith.
In April 2004, the people of Notre Dame were given a new pastor, Fr. Reginald Jean-Mary. He moved the parish in a new direction – outward toward the social apostolate as mandated by the gospels. Major milestones were reached between 2004 and 2008.
Fr. Jean-Mary’s primary focus is building the Shrine of Our Lady and, with the newly formed Notre Dame Building Fundraising Committee acting in an advisory capacity, the Groundbreaking and Blessing of the Site of the Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help took place on October 18, 2008. Archbishop John Clement Favalora whom approved the construction of the Shrine of Our Lady in April 2005 blessed the area with holy water and then broke the ground. Continued effort to raise funds for the construction of the Church is imminent.
Over the years Notre Dame has not only been a beacon of faith to the Haitian community in South Florida, but to the larger Haitian community in general. The Center is not only the hub of Haitian refugees seeking a safe haven, employment, spiritual guidance, legal service, but of the community in general regardless of their national origin or faith affiliation. Since its foundation, Notre Dame has welcomed and has become the home of bishops, priests, religious men and women traveling to South Florida, and even those in transit. Haitians feel at home in a church like Notre Dame. It gives them ownership. That is important for people who are kind of marginal to the rest of society.
History of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Our Patroness)
In 1798, the governor of Rome, General Massena, ordered several churches in Rome closed and destroyed. St. Matthew‘s was one of these churches. The Perpetual Help icon was taken by the Augustinian fathers to a nearby church, St. Eusebius. Later on they moved it to Santa Maria Posterula to a side altar. Pope Pius IX had invited a group of priests called the Redemptorists to set up a Marian house of veneration in Rome. They stationed in Via Merulana, not knowing that it was once the church of San Mateo and shrine of the once-famous icon. One day, a Redemptorist father heard stories of the icon and of the church in which it was once enshrined. The Redemptorists built a small church next to the building called St. Alphonse of Ligouri.
The Father General of the Redemptorists, Most Rev. Nicholas Mauron, decided to bring the whole matter to the attention of Pope Pius IX. The Pope decided that the icon should be exposed to public veneration and the logical site was their church of St. Alphonse of Ligouri, standing as it did between the Basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran. Pope Pius IX wrote a short memorandum ordering the Augustinian Fathers of St. Mary in Posterula to surrender the picture to the Redemptorists, on condition that the Redemptorist supply the Augustinians with another picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help or a good copy of the icon of Perpetual Help in exchange. Upon the return of the icon, Pope Pius IX gave the icon the title Our Mother of Perpetual Help. In June 23, 1867, the image was crowned by the Dean of the Vatican Chapter in a solemn and official recognition of the Marian icon under the title of Our Mother of Perpetual Succour. In April 21, 1866, the Redemptorist Superior General gave one of the first copies to Pope Pius XI, which is now preserved in the chapel of the Redemptorists’ General Government in Rome. The icon is under the care of the Redemptorist fathers of St. Alphonse of Ligouri Church where the icon is now enshrined.
Since then, the icon has been venerated all around the world. The icon has been popularized among many cultures and has had several titles in different languages such as Notre Dame du Perpetuel Secours.
Notre Dame du Perpetuel Secours and Haitians
In about 1861, a disease called petite verole (leprosy–bumps, holes in the skin, and very contagious) “veret” began to spread in Haiti. There was no treatment; the doctors and hospitals could do nothing. People began to die by the hundreds, then by the thousands. Every household was affected by the epidemic. There were so many deaths that funerals could not be held. Every town had a mass grave for the victims. (The mass grave was where the airport runway is now in Port-de-Paix.). The estimate was that about 200,000 people died.
In 1882, in desperation, bishops gathered in prayer with the faithful at Bel’Air in the Chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help asking for grace for all those infected with this disease. During a procession, one of the bishops in Port-au-Prince took the icon of Notre Dame du Perpetuel Secours, blessed the country in all directions and asked for help. The epidemic began to recede, and eventually stopped. The country celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving, and Haiti was consecrated to Notre Dame.
The year 2007 marked the 125th Anniversary of the consecration. The bishops re-consecrated Haiti to the care of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.