The ministry’s beginnings stem from a breakfast conversation 20 years ago, explained Father Francis J. Guidice, recalling his 1987 conversation with Bishop Louis E. Gelineau who was sharing details of a recent trip he had taken to the poverty-stricken country of Haiti.
That simple exchange of words brought about an extraordinary mission, Providence-Haiti Outreach.
Father Guidice was inspired from his initial conversation with Bishop Gelineau to visit Haiti. Once he visited, he could not stay away. The priest began organizing retreats to Haiti, bringing groups of Rhode Islanders to visit missions on the island nation.
Eventually, these short retreats were not enough for Father Guidice and his companions. Their love for the people in Haiti and compassion for the extreme poverty deepened and the Providence-Haiti Outreach was born.
The first major initiative of the outreach was the vision of Pat Pezzelli, a former University of Rhode Island football player and board member of the Outreach, who had the idea of building an athletic complex in the village of Marigot.
Pezzel, fundraising chairman for the project, died of cancer within one year, but not before the complex, with an orphanage and school, was underway. Susan Pezzelli Whipple has continued her father’s vision and is still active raising funds to help maintain the Memorial Complex through efforts that include an annual golf tournament.
Another key person in the successful establishment of the school is Father Serge Pardo, pastor of St. Dominique parish in Marigot. Father Pardo was appreciative for the work and assistance of Americans in Haiti, and after meeting Father Guidice, he quickly became a close confidant and ambassador for the Outreach. “He became our trusted agent in Haiti,” said Father Giudice.
When the Rhode Island group decided to open the school, they wanted it to be part of the diocesan school system in Haiti. Father Pardo agreed to act as principal, and handled the finances for the school. Father Guidice said “We would send money down to him, and when we would visit, we saw what he did with the money we gave him. He has great love for the children.” The Pezzelli Memorial Home and School was completed within two years, and the school opened with 50 elementary aged students.
Beginning with only 50 children, the school at St. Dominique now provides a free Catholic education to 350 students each year. The excellence of academic education provided to the children is evident in the national exam scores of the sixth graders, with at least percent of the students scoring above average. More important, is the faith element of their education that forms the children as followers of Christ.
Gervaise LaFleur was a student at the Pezzelli Memorial School a number of years ago. He came as a first grader and graduated six years later with honors. LaFleur didn’t want to stop there. He then attended a lycee junior high school and Jacmel High School, traveling miles each day by bus through rough terrain to complete his education. Now 21 years-old, he recently received his teacher certification, and returned to where he began his education.
Throughout his formation, he realized how important the work of the school at St. Dominique is and returned this September to teach at the school.
Father Giudice is overwhelmed with LaFleur’s success. “It makes it all worth it. An awesome moment in our mission there,” he said.
For the past two decades, the Providence-Haiti Outreach has helped construct and supported four more village schools and, with over 150 Rhode Islanders participating in raising funds and performing physical labor, the project is able to maintain school missions in Marigot and Jacmel, as well as assist the 116 Silesian mini-schools in the slums of Port-au-Prince. On this impoverished island, a country of rich history and extreme poverty and oppression, the Providence-Haiti Outreach has expanded, and continues to transform children’s lives.
In addition to providing free elementary level education to children, the program has also developed a scholarship program that offers additional educational opportunities. For students seeking to continue their education at a Catholic middle or high School, the Outreach with pay 50 percent of the cost of tuition, while the family pays the remainder — encouraging families to take an active role in educating their children.
The work of the Outreach is not only life-changing for the Haitians, but has an profound effect on its American contributors, who express their enthusiasm about their work with the ministry as a “unique opportunity” to serve the poorest of the poor.
David Munyon, president of the Outreach board commented, “It has been a privilege to be associated with this ministry to the poor.”
The board will host a 20th Anniversary Dinner at LeFoyer Restaurant on November, open to the public. Father Pardo will coming from Haiti to participate in the celebration.
For more information on Providence-Haiti Outreach, call Father Guidice at 421-6441.