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Irish entrepreneur helps Redemptorist mercy mission to Haiti

“There was a very strong smell of death surrounding the school with various estimates as to how many bodies might be resting in the debris. The level of damage and destruction to the physical infrastructure in Port-au-Prince is staggering. The human infrastructure and social capital are overwhelmed. Port-au-Prince is fast becoming a city of informal tent villages.” - Fr Gerry O’Connor, CSsR, Chairman of SERVE

The Chairman of the Redemptorist development organisation – SERVE (www.serve.ie) – has paid tribute to leading Irish entrepreneur, Denis O’Brien, for his assistance in delivering emergency aid, food, cash and medicines to the victims of the Haiti earthquake.

The Redemptorist priest has just returned from the stricken Caribbean state, where he and newly ordained Galway priest, Fr Sean Duggan, CSsR, saw first hand the catastrophic impact of the earthquake which left up to 230,000 dead. The Irish priests were on a fact-finding mission to revisit places where they volunteered before the earthquake and to document how best to help.

Fr Gerry O’Connor, CSsR, thanked the Chairman of Digicel for his interest in the plight of the people of Haiti. Denis O’Brien visited the ruins and helped in the recovery operation of Serve’s partner project in Port-au-Prince – St Gerard’s School – which collapsed killing as many as 180 pupils and six teachers.

According to Fr O’Connor: “Visiting the ruins of the school in the aftermath of the earthquake left us numb and tearful.”

Fr O’Connor underlined that “The Redemptorist commitment to Haiti is now all the more critical in the wake of the devastation wrecked by the earthquake”.

Before the earthquake, the Redemptorists served a community of over 100,000 people in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. Fr Sean Duggan spent time as a Serve volunteer prior to his ordination last December, at a clinic run by the children’s charity NPFS Haiti – otherwise known as Our Little Brothers and Sisters – which had cared for 1,000 vulnerable children. Sadly, key staff as well as some of the children were lost in the earthquake. A clinic was totally destroyed.

Both Denis O’Brien and his wife Catherine visited the ruins of Saint Gerard’s school with Fr Gerry and Fr Sean and helped to get the recovery operation underway.

“Very shortly after his visit, work commenced to remove the debris and to attend to the bodies, care for the children’s families and prepare a dignified burial”, explained Fr O’Connor.

The Limerick priest added: “The school collapsed into a sandwich like formation. The bodies remained trapped in the debris. There was a very strong smell of death surrounding the school with various estimates about how many bodies might be resting in the debris. A certain number were pulled out after the earthquake. There were 1,500 students present in the school on the morning of the quake and estimates believe that 180 students and six staff were trapped and died in the afternoon,” Fr O’Connor said.

He explained that “A site close to the Redemptorist parish church has been chosen as the burial place where the children and staff from St Gerard’s school will be remembered with love and dignity.”

One of the concerns the two Irish priests have for the people of Haiti and for their own Redemptorist confreres is the fact that “Rains commence in May but could come as early as March and the tents that are home to the people at the moment will be totally inadequate in heavy rain.”

“Ten percent of the population of Port-au-Prince are estimated to have died in the earthquake. Over fifty percent of the population are now homeless. The level of damage and destruction to the physical infrastructure has been staggering. The human infrastructure and social capital are overwhelmed. Port-au-Prince is fast becoming a city of informal tent villages. The schools and health infrastructure is so badly impaired that is going to be a daunting task to successfully get children back to school and to get the health service responding to the huge needs of the population”, Fr O’Connor explained.

“Food distribution and food aid is going to be a part of daily life for huge numbers for a considerable period of time. Linking water and sanitation facilities to informal tent settlements is urgent and will be difficult. Preventing the spread of infection will require every effort and vigilance. Designing and building transitory models of shelter suitable to Haiti for eighteen months to two years time spans for a huge percentage of the population is an imperative,” he said.

The parishioners of Saint Gerard are a community in need. The Redemptorists in Port-au-Prince, despite their own trauma, are working daily to support food distribution initiatives.

They say up to 200 families or 1200 people urgently need more food. The same number of people need strong tents. They are currently sleeping on footpaths and streets.

If you would like to make a donation or offer help,  email Fr Gerry O’Connor, CSsR at gerry@serve.ie