June 8, 2015 — Haiti, which as recently as 1986 had outlawed Jesuits, is now home to a brand new Jesuit novitiate in Dumay, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. And just as impressive is that vocations to the Society of Jesus are thriving in Haiti, with 55 Jesuits either working in the country or studying abroad.
With Jesuit vocations and ministries booming, Haiti’s original novitiate — which opened in 2001 and also housed a spirituality center — had reached capacity, and novices needed a quiet place for prayer and reflection. Jesuits in both Haiti and French Canada heard the call and spearheaded the construction of a new novitiate.
French Canadian Jesuits have been working in Haiti for decades. From the 1940s to 1962, French Canadian Jesuits helped with the formation of seminarians and ran a few parishes and a successful radio station, but they were not allowed to promote vocations to the Society since their mission was to support the local Church.
Jesuit Father Jean-Marc Biron (center), provincial of the French Canada Province, with Jesuits at the new novitiate in Haiti. (Photo by Marc Rizzetto, SJ)
Then in 1962, Haiti’s president François Duvalier passed a law essentially outlawing Jesuits; in one day, every Jesuit had to leave. When the law was lifted in 1986, a few French Canadian Jesuits went back immediately — this time with the purpose of building a Haitian Jesuit presence.
Today, there are 20 Jesuits in Haiti, along with two French Canadian Jesuits. The other 35 Haitian Jesuits are studying philosophy and theology in various countries, including the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Canada. As they complete their formation, more Jesuits will live and work in Haiti.
The first 10-15 years when the Jesuits returned in the 1980s were rocky, according to Fr. Pierre Bélanger, socius of the province. “It wasn’t easy — we didn’t have formation in Haiti, so novices were sent to Mexico and Panama. In 2001, we built the first novitiate in the country, and since then, we’ve had good success in retaining the men who join the Society in Haiti.”
Fr. Bélanger believes the Society of Jesus is attractive to men there because they see the wide range of ways in which they could serve. Many want to help their country, which faces so many problems.
A dedication Mass was celebrated at the novitiate in March. (Photo by Marc Rizzetto, SJ)
The Jesuits’ two most prominent ministries are with migrants at the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic and in education through Fe y Alegría schools. Since the devastating earthquake in 2010, education became even more of a priority for the Society, Fr. Bélanger notes. “We started a few years before the earthquake with two schools and today there are 17. They’re run by different groups, but we ensure the training of the teachers.”
With the growing ministries, the original novitiate is used for meeting space for the organizations, as well as for developing more Ignatian spirituality programs. The French Canadian Jesuits saw the need for novices to have “a quiet environment, a place where these young men have time to reflect on their lives in silence.” The new novitiate accommodates 10 novices, as well as three rooms for the formation team and a guest room.
The recent dedication Mass drew the provincials of the French Canada, English Canada and Antillean Provinces, Fathers Jean-Marc Biron, Peter Bisson and Javier Vidal, respectively, along with a representative of the local bishop and many guests — from local religious congregations to the team of engineers and workers that built the novitiate.
Jesuits, including Fr. Bélanger, in the courtyard of the Jesuit novitiate in Haiti. (Photo by Marc Rizzetto, SJ)
Fr. Bélanger admits that Haiti continues to be a difficult place to work and live. “The two French Canadian Jesuits living there, one is 85 and the other is 77, are heroes, in my opinion. You don’t see easily the fruits of your work because, in general, when something goes well for a while there are problems that come up and set you back.
“There are a lot of good things that are being done in Haiti, and a lot of people are involved in improving the lives of the people,” he says. “Unfortunately, the government is not always in condition to do its part to help the people.”
Yet, Fr. Bélanger is hopeful for the future of Haiti and what the Society of Jesus can accomplish there. “I’m very proud of what has been done by the Jesuits in Haiti over these last several years, especially since the earthquake. Our younger Jesuits, who are getting toward the end of their formation, you feel that they really want to make a difference for the people of their country, especially for those who have been neglected for a long time.”
Jesuits and guests enjoyed a meal together after the dedication of the novitiate. (Photo by Marc Rizzetto, SJ)