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Haiti Diary: Grief & Gratitude - Part 1

During this season of Lent, Sister Mary Alban Bouchard shares her diary entries for the 11 days following Haiti’s earthquake. Sister Mary Alban writes of her grief and gratitude during that tumultuous time.

Day 1
Tuesday, Jan. 12

Lilavois Diocesan Conference Centre, Port-au-Prince

At about 4:40 p.m., during our coffee break, there came a rumbling sound that became a trembling, then a powerful shaking. Someone called out, "tremblement de terre!" and everyone was thrown to the floor. The huge coffee urn went down and people tried to scurry on all fours to get outside. One Sister had fallen. Someone else fell on her and broke her arm in three places.

I myself was standing in the open doorway of the double doors. At the first rumble, I backed up against the doorframe and held on, my feet braced before me. The quake was so strong, I thought I couldn't hold on one more second. Then it eased off. Had I fallen, I am sure I would have been injured. There was no control: we were flung. We were fortunate to be in a one storey building which did not fall on us.

Our water supply and telephones were cut, even our cellular phones were de-ranged. We stayed outside, stunned, sitting on the few cement benches or on the ground. We slept on the ground, side-by-side as best we could.

Floods, hurricanes and cyclones are one thing, but nothing holds the terror of the earth convulsing under your feet.

Day 2
Wednesday, Jan. 13

The next morning, we met to arrange how to get our visitors from Cuba, Brazil, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, etc., to safety and out of the country. Most were driven to the Dominican Republic. None of us yet knew the dimensions of the quake. When we made our way into the heart of Port-au-Prince haltingly, we were stopped by piles of rubble. We had to turn back and try another artery.

As we saw bodies lined along the side of the street and people searching for the faces of loved ones, we began to wonder what we would find when we arrived at our homes. It was confirmed that the Archbishop was dead.

We drove into the yard where I live. College Marie-Anne was rubble. Our residence was crumbled, with the contents spilling down amid twisted iron and plaster as if some huge hand had crushed it.

I stood there in awe, realizing I had been spared. Only the large crucifix still hung on the exposed chapel, as if looking down upon us with utter love. The yard was filling up with homeless and injured people, mothers and children and neighbours.

News of casualties and deaths began to trickle in from the streets. We learned that Jean-Claude, our caretaker, as well as his young son, were buried in the rubble, unconfirmed if alive or dead. His younger son, Maximilian, my little pal, lay with an IV, his foot severed.

I thought of how, when Maximilian would come home from school, he would let loose and run like a rabbit in our yard. Would he ever run again? Would he even survive with no surgery available? There was only first aid: disinfecting torn flesh and suturing of wounds with no anesthetic.

Our neighbour had spoken to her sister and mother, who were buried in the debris of their home, but now there was only silence and her heart was breaking and there was nothing I could do.

We were hearing that it was 7 or 7.3 on the Richter scale.

Day 3
Thursday, Jan. 14

I prayed for no rain as we all bedded down in the yard at nightfall.

In the morning, more news of casualties and damage came. We knew that the National Palace, the Cathedral, and all the Government Ministry were badly damaged. Now we heard news of our churches. Christ Roi, Sacre Coeur, St. Louis de France and St. Gerard were totally destroyed. I would later see them, recognizable only by their location!

Hospice St. Joseph is gone. It was where I served the needy for 12 years. Norwish Mission House is gone. Manrese, the stately retreat house built by the Jesuits and known to all, has fallen with some mortalities. The classy Hotel Montana fell with 200 casualties and counting. The former Hospice Damien children's hospital and guesthouse are demolished. The big Caribbean Market collapsed with many people inside. The face of Port-au-Prince is altered. People say one can see the whole seaboard from above, so leveled is the landscape.

I'm sitting still a lot, making notes to help process what I am living and to record the courage and faith and resilience of the Haitian people. They keep coming in just to see if I am alive. They leave happy. My heart is touched that my being alive has made them happy, that they are thanking God for me.

I gave my new shoes to an elderly woman who came in alone. A little girl, about 4-years-old, was drumming on a foam lid and singing her heart out. Joy in the midst of sadness!

Day 4
Friday, Jan. 15

Rain held off again. The star-studded sky seemed to contradict us. But we are grateful. We are living on the edge. Not only because of the blackouts or the lack of communication or sleeping on the ground. We are constantly aware of the next tremor that may come.

I cannot give anything: my money is now inaccessible. I can only endure with the people.

At 11:45 a.m., the United Nations came with dogs, entering the collapsed school building at great risk to try to retrieve casualties. They will not retrieve the dead: they are searching for the living. They will later implode the site for the sake of public health.

I keep looking at the left foot of my little friend Maximilian and note that it is darkening.

I tried to get though to Sister Margaret Myatt, our general superior, on my cellphone, which I can't charge. I heard her respond. I tell her I am watching the United Nations searching the rubble of our neighbour's home. The woman who lived there was talking to her sister and mother under the rubble a few days ago. Now there is no sign of life.

The phone goes dead and we are cut off.

Day 5
Saturday, Jan. 16

A quiet night except for shooting which, I presume, is about looting prevention. People are still coming into the yard to find a safe place. They have no yards! It is getting noisier. People cry out at every tremor. At nightfall, the families mark out their little squares with a line of small rocks. I walk about once more bidding goodnight.

I look forward to celebration of Eucharist scheduled for 8 a.m. in the churchyard. The church is badly damaged inside and cannot be used.

Day 6
Sunday, Jan. 17

A cat meowed all night, marooned somewhere. There was snoring near me. I had to sneak into the one building briefly to get warm. I went back out and slept to 6:15 a.m..

The celebration of liturgy was solemn, compassionate and pastoral. We squeezed into the yard as far away as possible from the cracked pillars. One of the Haitian young men had followed me with a plastic chair for me to sit on. I'm probably the oldest one there.

Toward the end at the blessing, a photographer appeared, took a picture of the altar, then zeroed in toward me. The reporter came along. It turned out to be two journalists from the Globe and Mail who were actually looking for me. It was a kindly encounter.

I didn't know that I appeared on the front page of the Globe and Mail on Monday morning, a blessing because people who were concerned about me saw that I was alive and singing.

We too shall rise from the darkness of this destruction, rise anew.

Day 7
Monday, Jan. 18

Now begins the evacuation of the city by convoys of buses taking people to where they came from. This powerful earthquake has taken a very large toll of poor people.

I am praying for clarity in my decisions now. I do not feel anxious, but my options are narrowing. If I could get some funds out of my account and reach Pere Bonard, we could continue our work. I know he would take me in at the scholasticate. I ask Jean to pass by and see if the Credit Union is open and functioning. He tells me it is closed. Nor can I reach Pere Bonard. Another option closes.

As I sit here writing, reflecting and praying, as I do several times a day, two little girls, maybe 4 and 5, dash up to me and smother me with kisses, then run away giggling. They are of a family of five that I have been playing with. Unless you become as little children...

I know my heavenly Father is caring for me. I have known it since the first rumble of the earthquake.

Read the second part of Sister Mary Alban's diaries.

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