School Sisters of Notre Dame, Beyond Borders pair up to bring relief to Haiti

This farm field is in Cuvier, near La Tremblay, outside Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince. (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

For those of us watching events in Haiti, recent news has been mixed, at best.

Capping a year of political uncertainty, Jovenel Moïse became Haiti's 58th president February 7, vowing to turn around the country by focusing on modernizing agriculture.

"Together, we are going to carry out the national project to develop the country," Moïse said in his remarks at a swearing-in ceremony in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.

Whether Moïse can pull this off is hard to say. So many promises are made in Haiti, and so many are routinely broken. The idea of "modernizing agriculture" could also be problematic. Modernizing often means favoring large corporate farms at the expense of small farmers. This bears watching in the coming months and years.

Of course, Haiti is still recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake and is also dealing with the fallout from last fall's Hurricane Matthew, which caused serious damage along Haiti's coastal areas, particularly in the south.

One of the sisters we know who has worked on hurricane recovery efforts, Sr. Fidelis Rubbo, told me by email last week that hurricane-affected areas are still experiencing serious problems.

"Our people say that the people are getting hungrier and hungrier. Crops were not able to be planted because of cost and now because of drought," said Rubbo, a Sister of St. Francis of Sylvania, Ohio, who worked in Haiti from 2011 and 2014 and returned last fall following Hurricane Mathew.

Rubbo also said major relief groups "did not serve the people in the mountains well after Hurricane Matthew." Why? "They mostly delivered repeatedly to the coastal cities [that] were easier to reach, and some feared they would be overwhelmed if they took to the roads," she said. "Instead of sharing, the people in the cities stockpiled for themselves."

Street art in Port-au-Prince expresses the hopes of Haitians for a better life. (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

Amid these ongoing challenges is some good news: The Atlantic-Midwest Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame is joining with the Washington, D.C.-based humanitarian organization Beyond Borders in a new style of partnership in working in Haiti.

On the day after Moïse's inauguration, Sr. Charmaine Krohe, the provincial leader for the Atlantic-Midwest Province, and David Diggs, executive director of Beyond Borders, signed a "memorandum of understanding" establishing programs in Haiti that "align with both organizations' shared mission and vision to advance the values of human rights and social justice," the sisters said in a statement.

"Establishing partnerships for mission is one of the ways the charism of religious life can continue to be a transformative grace in areas of the nation and world where women religious can no longer send sisters," Krohe said in a statement.

Beyond Borders, whose work focuses on Haiti, "helps people build movements to liberate themselves from oppression and isolation," the organization says in a mission statement. The organization's commitments include universal access to education; ending violence against women and girls; and stopping a tradition of child slavery, known as the restavek system, in which Haitian children work as indentured domestic workers.

The Atlantic-Midwest Province has not had a big footprint in Haiti, but there have been some ties between the sisters and the Caribbean nation. One sister served in Port-au-Prince caring for babies who were born HIV-positive. And a Haitian member of the province reported on her country's situation at a 2013 assembly. That reaffirmed moves by the sisters to make Haiti one of their four ministry priorities. The other three are the right to clean water, immigration and fighting human trafficking.

Krohe and Sr. Arlene Flaherty, a Blauvelt Dominican who works for the School Sisters of Notre Dame, told me that partnering with Beyond Borders is a way for the Atlantic-Midwest Province to have an impact in Haiti without, as Flaherty called it, "putting boots on the ground."

The Atlantic-Midwest Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame has 544 sisters who have ministries in England, Italy and South Sudan, as well as 18 U.S. states and six Canadian provinces. With an increasingly aging membership, the congregation would be challenged to start new work in Haiti, so partnering made the most sense.

"The need for partnership and collaboration is critical for our congregation," Krohe said.

Flaherty added: "In an aging congregation, this is a way of doing mission in the 21st century."

Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital city, is home to 704,000 people. (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

The partnership means that the province will help fund two "startup" initiatives in the communities of Tipalmis and Nan Mango on the island of LaGonave, off of Haiti's west coast.

Diggs said while Hurricane Matthew did not affect the island as badly as southern Haiti, it did enough damage to make a serious impact. A recent survey by Beyond Borders indicated that 10 percent of households in six communities on the island are either without a house or have homes badly in need of repair.

Financial support is part of the sisters' commitment: They raised $40,000 for Beyond Borders' hurricane recovery efforts and have pledged $65,000 for the work in LaGonave. But also important is sending a delegation of teachers and teacher trainers to Haiti from Notre Dame of Maryland University, a women's college established by the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

The central mission of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, founded in 1833, has historically been on education, so emphasizing education in Haiti makes sense, Krohe said.

"Haiti is filled with people who thirst for education as a way out of poverty," she told me.

The congregation and Beyond Borders were introduced during a sisters' delegation visit in April 2016 to Haiti by Catholic Relief Services, which itself partners with Beyond Borders in Haiti.

The sisters felt that partnering with a smaller organization made the most sense for them, and Beyond Borders, which has strong ratings for effectiveness by charity-ranking groups, shared the sisters' commitment to a "strong Christ-based value system," Flaherty said.

Diggs told me that it is a "huge gift to have this partnership, to be connected to a community, not just a community of faith, but a community of women religious whose mission is so much in alignment with ours."

He did not discount the role of the sisters' prayers for Haiti. "It is meaningful for the communities to know they have solidarity from the sisters," he said. "I know there will be prayers both ways."

[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is]