(ANS – Port-au-Prince) – Joy and sorrow, dismay and hope marked the first day of Fr. Pascual Chavez’s visit to Haiti. Speaking to the youngsters and the Salesians, he said, “Our purpose is, first of all, to give hope to Haiti.”
The Rector Major arrived in Santo Domingo on the evening of February 11. Fr. Victor Pichardo, provincial of the Antilles, welcomed him and on the morning of February 12 accompanied him to the Haitian capital in a helicopter. Flying over Port-au-Prince 30 days after the earthquake that devastated the heart of the capital, the ninth successor of Don Bosco saw from above the vast areas of devastation.
The helicopter landed in the grounds of the Dominican embassy, which had also been made unfit for use by the earthquake. The ambassador of the Dominican Republic to Haiti, who introduced himself as a Salesian alumnus, joined the new Haitian superior, Fr. Sylvain Ducange, and his predecessor, Fr. Charles Jacques, as well as the provincial of the Salesian Sisters in Haiti, Sr. Marie Claire Jean to receive the Rector Major.
The first stop was at Pétion-Ville. Here the youngsters welcomed Fr. Chavez with joyful songs and a traditional dance. “As sons of Don Bosco, cheerfulness is our attitude, and we are moved by a spirit of optimism as we believe in the re-birth of the Haitian people and in the re-founding of the Salesian charism in our country,” Fr. Ducange said in his welcoming address. In his reply the Rector Major once again expressed how he and the whole Congregation were close to them, full of hope: “Before thinking of re-building the walls, it is necessary to give hope to the people and to the young.”
He then visited the Salesian place most affected by the earthquake, regarding both the buildings and the loss of life: the Ecole Nationale des Arts et Métiers (ENAM). Accompanying the group was Fr. Mark Hyde from the New Rochelle missions office, who had already been in Haiti for two weeks coordinating relief efforts. After visiting the various halls of the school and noting the damage and destruction, the Rector Major stopped for a few moments of silent prayer at the place where 12 Salesian pupils were buried.
Much greater and much deeper was his emotion in front of the piles of rubble that still cover the bodies of about 150 youngsters. The silence in the courtyard filled with rubble made more heart-rending the exclamation: “How is it possible! Young people just starting out on life!” The Rector Major spoke to the Italian civil defense and fire service workers who are removing the debris of ENAM, stressing the significance of the place and the sacred character it tragically now has.
Life has not stopped at ENAM, however. The youngsters and the staff of LAKAY welcomed Fr. Chavez in a short ceremony with songs and an address. “Now we must look to the future; it is up to you to give hope to Haiti,” the Rector Major told them. At the end, the LAKAY youngsters gave Fr. Chavez an oil painting.
Here too the Rector Major met an delegation from the Italian contingent in Haiti, led by Naval Captain Gianluigi Reversi, commander of the aircraft carrier Cavour. “We wanted to work with the Salesians because we have seen, also here, their commitment to the young and to the poor,” the spokesman of the press office of the group said.
The Salesian parish of Cité Soleil, rendered unfit for use by the earthquake, the reception camps set up at Drouillard, and the vice province headquarters were visited next. In spite of the pain in seeing how deep are the wounds suffered by the Salesian centers, Fr. Chavez never failed to bring hope and a spirit of optimism.
“We are very pleased with the visit of the Rector Major, and we are conscious of the closeness of the whole Congregation. This encourages us to go ahead and to overcome all the difficulties!” Fr. Ducange often repeated. Only on January 30 was he installed as the new superior of the vice province of Haiti.
Early in the afternoon Fr. Chavez walked through the streets to see the places in the city most affected. Looking at the ruins of the cathedral, he said to those with him: “God is walking through these streets telling us that he is on the side of those who are suffering, those still under the rubble, those who have seen reduced to dust the little they had managed to achieve in their whole lives.”
The last stop on the first day was Fleuriot, the postnovitiate house of formation for various religious orders present in Haiti, rendered completely uninhabitable. “We must rebuild for the formation of our Salesians and in order to continue to offer this service of formation to the local Church,” were the words of encouragement and the proposal of the Rector Major.
At the end of the day he had a meeting with the vice provincial council, which has already begun to look to the future.