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Newly Baptized Haitians Rejoice in Their Faith
Paul McMullen
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Wednesday, April 28, 2010
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ST. MARC, Haiti (CNS)—A month delay only served to make the celebration more poignant.

Deacon Rodrigue Mortel, director of the Missions Office for the Baltimore Archdiocese, intended to spend March 13 baptizing students from The Good Samaritans School, the educational beacon he willed into existence in St. Marc, the hometown of his childhood, 50 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.

Those plans, of course, changed Jan. 12, when a magnitude 7 earthquake flattened much of the capital city and left an estimated 230,000 dead and more than 1 million people homeless.

But on April 10, the baptism of one infant and 30 students from the school went off without a hitch.

"Any time you receive new people into the church it's a great day," Deacon Mortel said. "This is what Jesus asks us to do. ... Of course, the fact that these kids are safe, there is already enough reason to give thanks to God."

The school's mission is to feed and educate the poorest of the poor in the most impoverished, illiterate nation in the Western Hemisphere.

The student body, kindergarten through eighth grade, now numbers nearly 600 as people from quake-hit areas migrate to the department of Artibonite, which includes St. Marc.

Deacon Mortel, 77, is the only permanent deacon in Haiti. He returns to the school frequently to remind the students that they can use education to create a better life than the one into which they were born.

"We believe," Deacon Mortel said, "that the education should not consist only of reading and writing and science; we try to form an entire human being, soul, body and mind. We teach the Catholic faith and baptize about 30 children every year.

"When the children get to school age, less than 30 percent are baptized. The priority when the baby is born isn't baptism; it's making sure the child is fed."

Although the school was not damaged by the earthquake, the disaster delayed the preparation of the catechumens because other buildings in the area sustained minor cracks and the government closed schools until they could pass examination by structural engineers.

The baptism began at 3:15 p.m., but the youngsters' day began with 6:15 a.m. Mass at St. Marc Cathedral, a quarter-mile walk past donkeys carrying sugar cane and motor scooters ferrying passengers holding freight. By 8:45 a.m., the catechumens were rehearsing their procession into the school's open courtyard.

While the students are schooled in French, the service was conducted in Creole. Deacon Mortel worked long hours on his sermon.

"The newly baptized are children of God and new members of the church, with rights and obligations," Deacon Mortel said. "When you are baptized, you have to be king, priest, prophet. What you learn, you have to give to somebody else."

A priest who remains hospitalized with injuries suffered in the quake could not stand as a godparent. Regular volunteers from Deacon Mortel's home in the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., such as Anne-Marie Jallon and Jeff Remington, were godparents for children.

Deacon Mortel dipped a glass pitcher into a white pail to baptize the students. As opposed to receiving stoles, they immediately ducked into a classroom and emerged in finery that made them look like a first Communion class: the girls in white dresses, boys in blue slacks and white shirts. Much of the clothing was on loan.

A handful of selected students then gave testimonies crafted during a weeklong retreat supervised by the principal, Sister Marie Bernard Jean-Baptiste of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph de Cluny. Their readings always require Deacon Mortel to tighten the grip on his composure.

"They give thanks, what they feel about being baptized," Deacon Mortel said. "No word in English explains their living conditions before they came to school here."

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