Franciscan sister promotes health, economic development in Haiti

May 15, 2012

When Sr. Fidelis Rubbo, OSF, first came to Haiti in 1999, she intended a brief stay.

Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Rocky Mount, Va., where she served as pastoral coordinator, had been twinning with a Haitian parish for 14 years. Since Sr. Rubbo was leaving the parish, she was hoping to "pass the Haitian torch" to her parishioners — five of whom accompanied her to the island — before her departure.

Thirteen years later, Sr. Rubbo is still in Haiti; she has been a permanent resident of the mountain village of Ferrier since 2002. Ferrier is close to Pestel, a coastal town on the southern peninsula 90 miles from Port-au-Prince. The area, comprised of six counties with a population of 70,000, is distinctly poor, even by Haitian standards.

Sr. Rubbo's ministry, which began with pastoral care, has grown to encompass a plethora of projects, from the administration of a health clinic and dispensary to the formation of Kretyen Pwogre Ansanm, or Christians Progress Together, a leadership council focusing on health and economic development. Other initiatives have included the building of cisterns to collect rain for clean drinking water, an agricultural program to encourage farmers to grow nutritious foods like peanuts and vegetables, a sewing center to train women for careers as seamstresses, organization of a group to provide micro-crediting for small businesses, and much more.

"I was drawn to Haiti by its people, with their many needs and indomitable spirit. They are very faith-filled. God is not a name to them. When they say 'God willing' or 'God knows,' they mean it literally. They are a strong people who have endured a lot of suffering," she says.

Sr. Rubbo is proud of the progress that has been made over the years. What she is most excited about now, though, is an expansion of the mission through the construction of a five-bedroom "guest house" financed by Sylvania Franciscan Health of Toledo, Ohio, the health and human services ministry of the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania, Ohio. Visiting medical teams and aid workers will stay in the house as they support the development efforts championed by Sr. Rubbo and Sr. Josephine (Jo) Dybza, OSF, who joined the ministry in Ferrier in 2009.

The sisters live in a spartan two-bedroom building, a brisk 45-minute walk from the main road, with a tin roof and no electricity or running water.

In contrast, the guest house will have many amenities. At about 2,500 square feet, it will accommodate up to 10 visitors, with bunk beds, meeting rooms, running water, solar-powered electricity and two verandas looking out to the sea.

"The guest house will be a huge improvement in living facilities," says Sr. Pat Gardner, OSF, council liaison of the Haiti Stateside Committee for the Sisters of St. Francis.

The guest house is a direct result of a speech James W. Pope, president and chief executive of Sylvania Franciscan Health, heard while attending Mass. "A visiting priest who was discussing his organization's ministry in Haiti mentioned that a little investment could go a long way there. For just $5,000, he said, you could build a house for a Haitian family," Pope recalls. "I thought we could — and should — develop a plan to do so for a deserving family there."

After consulting with Sr. Diana Lynn Eckel, OSF, the congregational minister of the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania, as well as Srs. Rubbo and Dybza, though, it was determined that there was a bigger need than just building a single family home. "The sisters came up with the idea of building a guest house to accommodate those, who in answering God's call, find themselves providing health care to the many needy people in Haiti," says Pope.

Construction began last summer with crews building a road so that contractors could get equipment up the mountain to erect the two-story guest house, located near the dwelling built for Srs. Rubbo and Dybza in 2005.

Of course, the project's cost has risen from the $5,000, one-family home originally envisioned by Pope. Estimates are that the guest house will cost $110,000, including furnishings that are being handmade by Haitian carpenters. Sr. Gardner hopes construction will be completed this fall or winter, depending on rainfall conditions in the area, since water — currently in short supply — is needed to mix cement.

In addition to medical teams from Sylvania Franciscan Health, Sr. Rubbo envisions offering the guest house to other groups and clergy with whom she has connections. Dr. Richard Paat, a Toledo-area physician who provides water filter systems to families in developing countries, is already planning a visit. Another friend, Dr. Ben Fredrick of Penn State Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa., hopes to come to drill up to 20 wells in the area, Sr. Rubbo says. Fredrick hosted a Haitian heart patient for surgery in the U.S. and has since provided 12,000 children in the Pestel area with deworming medicine and vitamin A supplements.

The list of health projects Sr. Rubbo hopes to tackle is ambitious. Yet she insists her primary objective in Haiti is to encourage leadership talents and relationships among people, so that faith, skills and attitudes that have been developed together will endure in the human spirit from one generation to the next.

To date, the mission's clinic has trained health care monitors, offered midwifery education, provided a free program for preg?nant mothers and newborns, and offered vaccinations and basic health care education.

"My personal wish for the work that we have begun is that it continue to thrive, that more Haitians and foreign visitors continue to come together to work for a better life for all, that in essence we accomplish what I see as the intent of God for all people — dignity and the basic necessities of life," she says.


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.