success stories

Posted January 4, 2004

Reaching out to Haitians

O'Malley becomes first Catholic leader in Boston
to offer Mass in Creole

By Corey Dade, Globe Staff, 1/2/2004

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley became the first leader of the Catholic Church in Boston to conduct Mass in Haitian Creole yesterday, devoting the New Year's Day service to a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Haiti's independence and bolstering the church's effort to reach out to burgeoning immigrant populations. O'Malley, who had been learning the language since taking over the archdiocese last year, received a standing ovation from the congregation of about 1,000, most of them Haitian nationals who lived through the struggles of black Catholics in Boston to gain stronger roles in the church. O'Malley earned plaudits for speaking passable Haitian Creole and also for a homily that at once praised Haiti's history -- as the first black republic in the world and the first nation in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery -- and called on Haitians in Boston to help revive their country's crumbled economy and stablize its politics. ''The presence of Haitians enriches the Catholic community of Boston,'' O'Malley said, adding later that ''poverty and oppression has forged a strong people'' who must strive for a solidarity that can rebuild Haiti.

Some were impressed that O'Malley, who speaks Portuguese and Spanish, among other languages, referred to a Haitian custom of eating Soup Joumou, or squash soup, on Independence Day. While under French rule, slaves were forbidden from eating the soup, which became a status symbol among the colonial leaders; Haitians now dine on the soup to commemorate their liberation from France in 1804.

But O'Malley did not shy away from the country's current problems of poverty, illiteracy, and political unrest.

''So many Haitian immigrants have come to these shores to work -- hard work and often for little recompense,'' O'Malley said. ''We do not want to come together for a few hours and have our Soup Joumou and return to business as usual.''

Following the service, which ended with the congregation waving miniature Haitian flags and singing the Haitian national anthem, O'Malley plunged through the crowds, pumping hands and posing for group photographs.

Grading O'Malley's language skills, state Representative Marie St. Fleur, the first Haitian in Boston to win a state office, said, ''When they told me he insisted on having the whole service in Creole, I thought `Oh Lord.' But, listen, he speaks it better than my sisters.''

Striking an early rapport with immigrant communities is critical for O'Malley, who is operating under intense scrutiny as he tries to soothe a distressed archdiocese in the wake of the priest sexual abuse scandal that left many of the faithful disillusioned. As groups of Catholics launched reform movements in response to the scandal, many immigrant communities remained resolute supporters of Cardinal Bernard F. Law until his resignation.

Church officials have said that immigrants from Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking countries account for more than 350,000 of the 2 million Catholics in the Archdiocese and make up the highest proportion of new membership.

In Greater Boston, Haitians and Haitian Americans number more than 44,000, according to census reports. They settle in Dorchester and Mattapan in Boston, and in Cambridge, Somerville, Lynn, Everett, Malden, and Brockton. In parishes with heavy Haitian populations, bilingual church services have become commonplace.

''The church has always been part of the Haitian experience in Boston, as the first place to give sanctuary to some of the refugees coming in,'' St. Fleur said. ''But the church could do more. The church is its own worst enemy on some issues. With the people they put out front, you don't get to see the diversity of people doing the work. The bodies filling the churches are people of color.''

Many Haitians in Boston believed they turned a corner in their relationship with the church in 2002, when Cardinal Law attended the annual fund-raising dinner of the Haitian Multi-Service Center, the Dorchester organization considered the linchpin of the region's Haitian community. The Mass yesterday was welcomed widely as a next step, as Haitian activists spread word of the service to draw attendees from throughout Eastern Massachusetts.

''The archbishop's message clearly showed that we as Haitians belong to the church here in Boston,'' said Pierre Imbert, executive director of the Multi-Service Center. ''The church as a whole understands the challenges we face as a community of immigrants. Together we're not alone in facing the challenge and the church will be with us, either the challenges that directly affect our lives here or the challenges in Haiti that affect our lives here.''