When I stop to remember, I realize that Haiti has always been my neighbour - just a few doors down the street, so to speak. Without going into my own life story, I’ll try to explain to you why Haiti has always been close to my heart.
I was born abroad but "on Canadian soil" in an embassy in northeast Africa in the early 1950s. Although my parents were both employed overseas, it was decided when I reached school age that I should return to Canada, live with my maternal grandmother and my siblings, and attend an English Catholic school in Montreal. After living abroad in an ex-pat community in Africa for almost five years, I was thrilled at the liberty and freedom that I enjoyed once I was "home" in Montreal.
Living in my father’s hometown meant that I came to know and love my father’s many brothers and sisters. My paternal aunts and uncles were - by and large - employed professionals. This was very unique at the time, and particularly unique for women. My paternal grandfather believed in education, which was something he had never had the opportunity to acquire. That didn’t stop GrandPapa from becoming very successful and fairly wealthy. But GrandPapa was a very strong-willed man. As a result, my aunts and uncles included doctors, teachers, lawyers, historians, journalists, writers, painters/artists; priests, nuns and Christian Brothers. My own father was a structural engineer and metallurgist.
Because I had spent most of my early childhood apart from my older siblings, I was a very independent child with a somewhat solitary nature. "He’s a thinker," adults around me would comment. "Yes," my grandmother would nod her agreement, "Joshua is a very internal boy. He thinks a lot - about a lot of things." They were right.
One of the things I thought a lot about was how lucky I was. I was lucky to be in Montreal among family and friends, lucky to live in a big old child-friendly house with a doting grandmother, lucky that my parents provided so amply for me. I knew I was lucky because I had visited my friend Najib back in northeast Africa. Najib’s dad was a gardener employed by the ex-pat community in which we lived. When I visited his home, I was shocked at how little his family had, how small was their little house, how thin the soup they served me. But Najib was my best friend, and his parents were warm, loving people. I remember thinking "something is wrong with this picture" in my preschooler head at the time, but Najib had a red rubber ball and was calling me to join him and his dad for a game in the yard. I joined them and had fun. Later that evening, I pressed my father with questions about why Najib and his family had so little and we had so much. This was the first time I remember reacting to what I perceived to be the injustice around me.
But let me tell you about the Christmases but back in Montreal.
Every year, particular uncles (my Dad’s brothers, a great uncle or two etc.) and a couple of aunts (my Dad’s sister, a couple of his aunts) would return to Quebec to visit with family and friends before returning to their missionary work abroad. These were always festive occasions where my grandmother pulled out all the stops cuisine-wise. After everyone had eaten as much as they possibly could, the guest of honour would then recount to us all what they had been up to over the past eleven months. I remember listening with rapt attention because this was "the real skinny" so to speak - information that you simply could not get at the time unless you had missionary relatives.
And then there were the movies - 8mm and Super8mm film strips - sometimes in colour and sometimes in black-and-white. I wonder now where all those films went? Do religious orders collect all these items in the wake of a member’s death?
Frere Martin (Brother Martin) and Soeur Françoise (Sister Françoise) were my favourite uncle and aunt.
Frere Martin was actually my great uncle. Martin was a member of an order of Christian Brothers. Rumour had it that Martin had been quite a hell raiser. He’d worked as a bouncer, a professional wrestler, and a wilderness travel guide in northern Quebec before he had "heard the call," as he described it. At the age of 30, Martin surprised everyone by breaking up with his girlfriend of the time and joining a religious order of Christian missionaries. Within a year, Martin had been assigned to Haiti. He would only return to Canada for brief visits thereafter. He died in Haiti in the early 1980s at the age of 71. At his own request, he was buried there.
But in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, Frere Martin’s visits were annual highlights for me. A big, gruff and burly man in his mid-forties when I first met him, Frere Martin never really changed. He didn’t seem to get older, only gentler.
I’d never seen movies like Frere Martin’s! My family’s super 8mm movies were all filmed at family events. There was Joshua, aged two, playing with a cat in the kitchen. There was aunt Alice looking gorgeous in her wedding dress. There’s Mom and Dad leaving (again) to return to Africa and their jobs there (a LOT of those!)
But my brothers and sisters and I had never seen anything like what Frere Martin’s films depicted.
Here’s the dormitory where the boys sleep. How many? Oh, it depends, but usually there’s well over a hundred. Happy? I think they are happier with us than they would be on their own. They’re all orphans, you see. No, we don’t know where their parents are or what happened to them or if they will ever return. Many people disappear in Haiti. These boys have nobody else. See what beautiful smiling faces they have? I like to think that those smiles are because they are happy to be with me, and happy to know our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. See! Here they all are, cleaning up the church after Sunday mass, smiling and happy...
Voila! Here are some of our girls. Aren’t they beautiful in their blue school uniforms? No, they don’t mind wearing them. Many came to us without clothes at all, so a blue school uniform of their very own makes them very happy. See! Here they all are setting up the cafeteria before supper. See how well they work together? Each one has particular jobs to do, and each is very dedicated to getting their jobs done properly. No, they don’t mind working like this. It’s better than any of the alternatives.
Ah! Here’s Raymonde. She’s one of my favourites. She’s fifteen years old now and she wants to become a nun. The good sisters will be taking her to the convent in the next year right here in Montreal. Raymonde is so excited about it. She didn’t even talk to us for the first two years she lived with us. She was only about seven and had been raped and beaten and left for dead. We never have learned whether she’s an orphan or whether her own parents did that to her.
And here’s David. He’s a feisty little guy! He’s been with us for a little over a year now. And what a talented painter he is. Here he is painting in his classroom. See how much better his pictures are compared to the others? He’s only ten, but his paintings are amazing. We’ve hung some of his better pictures, and have even sold a few. David was so proud of himself when that happened. And do you know what he did with the money? He gave it to Sister Evangeline to buy rosaries. "Every boy and girl should have their own rosary," he told Sister Evangeline.
Aha! Here we all are working in the fields behind the main buildings. Not much grows well, but if we work very hard, we manage to get some tomatoes and radishes and a few other things growing. The children work so hard at it! It makes me feel so sad when our crops fail now and then. If the crops responded to the love and dedication these kids bring to their chores, the tomatoes would be the size of footballs! But that’s not how nature works, unfortunately.
And so on and so on...sometimes into the wee hours of the morning! And although Frere Martin spared us the more gruesome details, we all knew that his life back in Haiti was a hard one, and heartbreaking!
I remember once being moved to tears when Frere Martin told us about Andre, a young boy my age at the mission who had to have a leg removed because of gangrene. The rudimentary medical facilities in Haiti, I knew, meant that this boy - a child my own age - had to endure excruciating pain as well. That year, I remember taking most of the toys I received for Christmas and turning them over to Frere Martin to give to Andre upon his return. "I just can’t play with these new toys when I have so many other toys already and Andre has nothing, not even a left leg anymore." I was in tears. Frere Martin assured me that my gifts would go directly to Andre the minute he got back to Haiti. Nothing else would staunch my tears...
There was an unspoken family pact between and among all my Dad’s brothers and sisters. Every year, each family collected the best of the "used clothing" in the house. These items were laundered, repaired and meticulously pressed, folded and bagged as if each item was brand new. Ditto toys, books, school supplies etcetera. Everything was thoroughly refurbished, cleaned, packaged and boxed for shipping.
It was many years before I learned that my Dad’s family actually filled a shipping container full of goods in this way, and paid for it to be delivered to Frere Martin’s mission every single year for over three decades. Frere Martin was also provided with a significant sum in hard cash before he left Montreal to resume his work in Haiti.
Soeur Françoise was a whole different kettle of Roman Catholic fish! We called her "Tante Françoise" - Aunt Françoise in English - which made me feel very daring. This was a time when nuns in full habit were always called "Sister" - even if they were related to you. And Tante Françoise was always dressed in a full black habit complete with long veil and stiff, starchy wimple. But she was my Dad’s sister, and an exception to the rule was made. This was just as well, since just about everything about Tante Françoise broke the rules.
Tante Françoise was a year or two younger than my Dad. She and my mother had been very close girlfriends when they were teenagers. Françoise introduced my mother to my Dad right around the time she announced to her family that she was joining a congregation of nuns.
By the time I was of school age and living in Montreal again, Tante Françoise had acquired three doctoral degrees at the Sorbonne (History, Theology, and French Literature), and spent over a decade in central Africa as a missionary. Later on in life, she would become the head of the entire congregation and lunch with His Holiness Pope John XXIII twice a year. But I’m getting off-track...
Tante Françoise was driven, and everything about her told you this loud and clear. Her annual arrivals were always a somewhat chaotic event. Tante Françoise usually stayed with us, and her suitcases and trunks would often number close to ten. An academic her entire life, Tante Françoise typically traveled with one suitcase full of books - books for us, her nieces and nephews. And when she left, that suitcase had been restocked with books for herself and for friends and acquaintances wherever she was based at the time.
Tante Françoise was a born storyteller. From her, we learned of her congregation’s work in setting up and running missions, schools, orphanages and medical clinics in places whose names we could barely spell.. Tante Françoise herself was very involved in educational initiatives as well as the identification, education and training of new postulants. These would go on to work in her congregation’s outposts throughout the world. To say that Tante Françoise was a woman of vision would be an understatement.
From Tante Françoise, we learned about the small convent mission her congregation maintained in Haiti. There, the missionary nuns - many of them Haitians themselves - worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the poor and destitute. Most of their work was in the areas of health and education.
I shall always remember Christmas 1961. I was in fourth grade, and had learned that the history and math books we were using at school were brand new and had just been introduced that academic year. "What happened to the books that had been in use before," I asked Mrs. Gagnon the librarian, "because my Tante Françoise is a nun and she runs a school in Haiti and the kids there could use those books."
It was a simpler time. Mrs. Gagnon actually "heard" the authenticity in my ten-year-old voice. She enquired and discovered that all the textbooks had been packed into cardboard boxes and were still sitting downstairs in a storage room. Imagine my boyish pride when I was able to arrange a delivery of hundreds of textbooks to the Mother House (with "Attention: Tante Françoise" stickers all over every single box!) I shall always remember how my heart felt like it would burst when Tante Françoise hugged me and told me that hundreds of little boys and girls would be remembering me in their prayers far away in Haiti when she got back there.
Mine was a very comfortable childhood. But because of Frere Martin and Tante Françoise, my siblings and I were always keenly aware of how lucky we were, of how so many others - children and adults alike - had so very little. It also ignited in my siblings and I the spirit of giving and a sense of responsibility to help others, whether in faraway places or just across town.
These gifts are priceless, and I have done my very best to pass them along to my own children. I think I’ve succeeded in that, but it would have been a lot easier had I had the stellar showmanship of Frere Martin and Tante Françoise to bolster my efforts.
As I wrote earlier, the Lord blessed my childhood in many ways. Frere Martin and Tante Françoise were just two of them.