After devastating Haiti quake, Franciscan sisters are resolved to stay

News: Haiti earthquake

On August 14, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake sent ripples of economic and social destruction across the impoverished island of Haiti.

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Sister Martha Ann Abshire was hundreds of miles away in Louisiana, where she currently lives, as she read the calamitous news about her mission field.

“My heart literally almost stopped beating. I remember what it felt like during the 2010 earthquake. I was heartbroken knowing it hit where our sisters were living and working,” she told The Pillar.

“Even if my feet are elsewhere, my heart is always [there]... I love the Haitian people. I don't like the politics, I don't like the poverty, but it's like family.”

When Sister Abshire first arrived in Haiti in 1988, she was instructed to assess the needs of the people there.

But she found that “in Haiti, everything is a need.”

Abshire and another sister from her community, the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, were sent to Haiti to live for a year, to learn the culture and language, and to see how the sisters might be able to minister to the people there. 

What they found was a dire situation, with widespread poverty and suffering.

“The inflation is horrible. And economically, there are no jobs...The poverty and the shortages are awful. Even if you have money in some of the smaller towns, there's nothing to purchase. You have to wait until whoever owns the store can travel to Port-au-Prince to purchase stuff,” Abshire told The Pillar.

The Franciscan sisters were told that if they wanted to start a mission in Haiti, they would be sent $500 a month for living expenses, but if they needed other funds, they would have to do the fundraising themselves.

The sisters decided to move forward with serving the local people - but first, they asked their permission.

“We explained [to the Haitians] what we thought we could do for them, and of course, we said, ‘only if you want us to come and do this’...Out of respect for the people’s dignity, you don't just go and hand stuff out without having a relationship,” Abshire said.

Throughout the years, the sisters integrated themselves into the community, offering to the surrounding people supplies, employment opportunities, and medical aid. Over the course of more than 30 years, they have served thousands of Haitians. 

One of the greatest needs the sisters saw was for quality health care, particularly for children. With the majority of the country’s population living in poverty, 8% of Haitian children die before their first birthday. 

The Francisan Missionaries of Our Lady had seen so many babies die of malnutrition that they were determined to gain the funding necessary to open a small children’s hospital in the city of Sainte-Hélène, which they did in 1998. The facility is large enough to house up to 32 infants and children.

The sisters wanted to bring hope and enrich the quality of life for the people of Haiti. They dubbed their children’s hospital “Timoun Kontan,” which means, “Happy Children.”

Since its opening, the hospital and its affiliated nutrition center have served nearly 300 children per year. Often the children come in experiencing severe malnutrition. They are nursed back to health, and their parents receive education about nutrition and care. The hospital follows up with the children for up to two years after they are discharged, ensuring that they remain healthy. 

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But on August 14, the “Timoun Kontan” hospital collapsed as the powerful earthquake tore through the region. The epicenter of the earthquake was less than five miles from the hospital. 

“There were no indications of deaths; thank God,” Arbshire said. Still, the loss of the building will make it more difficult for the sisters who are present in the area to serve the local people. 

While Sister Abshire now lives in the United States, raising funds for the community, two members of her order are currently in Haiti. 

Abshire said updates from the pair - Sr. Nordette and Sr. Isabelle - have been spotty. With no cell phone service, the sisters in Haiti can only send intermittent information from internet cafes. Poor road conditions and the presence of gangs have made travel difficult since the earthquake. 

The Franciscan convent where the sisters had stayed in Aquin also suffered damage in the quake, leaving the two onsite sisters without a viable option for a home base, according to their last update. They’ve since chosen to live out of their car.

“They're frightened, and I can understand why. It's no joke,” Abshire said.

The death toll from the August 14 earthquake currently stands at more than 2,200, with over 9,000 injured and many more missing. Some 50,000 are believed to be homeless. The official casualty count is expected to rise as search-and-rescue teams continue to scan the rubble. 

Local reports indicate that some people injured by the quake are facing delays in receiving treatment, due to shortages of facilities and medical equipment. The U.S. Coast Guard has begun evacuating people in need of more serious medical attention. 

With their hospital destroyed and their sisters unable to travel amidst the turmoil and debris, the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady will face new obstacles in providing health care in a country where medical resources were already scarce. Haiti is still working to recover from the catastrophic 7.0 earthquake that struck in 2010. The country is currently the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

When the Franciscan sisters’ mission in Haiti was initially founded, Abshire said, she was told that they could leave at any time, with no advance permission needed. 

But despite the dangerous conditions, the community has no plans to abandon Haiti. 

“Our sisters just don't leave unless we're thrown out of the country because, quite frankly, if we leave, then we're not as integrated in the life of the people as we claim to be,” Abshire explained. “Our job as missionaries is to be one with the people, and so that's for good times and bad times.”