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|| By Mary Ellen Manz, M.M.

Maryknoll Sisters begin a new mission with Sisters of Charity in Haiti

The Maryknoll Sisters have a new mission in Haiti that began with a chance encounter. Shortly after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti in January 2010, Maryknoll Sister Elizabeth Knoerl happened to meet a U.S. doctor who told her about the suffering in the Caribbean land, where he and other medical people were volunteering their services.

Sister Knoerl, who worked in Hong Kong, Korea and Nepal and has a master’s degree in public health, was doing health education in Virginia at the time. But she accepted the doctor’s invitation to “come and see” the needs in Haiti.

“I had witnessed poverty in Nepal, but it was nothing compared to that of the people of Haiti, which was already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere before the earthquake,” recalls Sister Knoerl, referring to the temblor that killed 220,000 and displaced 1.3 million. “With no clean water, malnutrition, cholera and septic wounds had become common.” The missioner from Buffalo, N.Y., knew this was a place where Maryknoll Sisters needed to be.

With permission from the Sisters leadership team, in 2011 she joined two Sisters of Charity of Convent Station, N.J., Sisters Dianne Moore and Janet Lehmann, nurses who also wanted to work in Haiti. The three agreed they would collaborate with groups already ministering to Haitians.

Building relationships with personnel in Catholic Relief Services (CRS) as well as local hospitals, clinics and diocesan organizations enabled the Sisters to determine where they could best help and to whom they could go for help.

They soon heard the cry of the poor in six locales, where they set up temporary clinics when doctors come every three months. “Getting to the clinics is a real task, driving through tons of mud, decaying garbage and hundreds of people,” says Sister Knoerl. “When we arrrive at a clinic, we pass through hundreds of women, children and men sitting on the ground hoping to be seen by someone who will help them. Not all will be seen before the clinic closes for the day.”

On a personal note, she says, “I’m not a nurse, so nothing could have prepared me for one day in the wound clinic. One of my patients was a very young woman with breast cancer. She had breast surgery once, but the doctors did not get all the cancerous tissue out. There was nothing more the medical personnel could do for her, so I cleaned her wound as best I could, redressed it and sent her home with bandages, painkillers and antibiotics.”

Sisters Elizabeth Knoerl (top, left) and Theresa Kastner (below) accompany Haitians struggling to
survive, such as the vendor above, hoping to earn a few cents each day. (Courtesy of E. Knoerl/Haiti)

Reflecting on the experience, the missioner adds, “I do my best to assure people in my limited Kreyòl (one of Haiti’s two official languages, with French) that I am praying for them. There is such a need to help ease their pain. The thanks they give me in turn help ease my pain and feeling of helplessness.”
She is impressed by the generosity of others who lend a hand, such as a physician’s assistant from Minnesota who comes to Haiti every three months bringing doctors from Chicago and Minnesota as well as medicines, all at their own expense. “They’re happy to have our help in setting everything up,” says Sister Knoerl, adding that the database on each patient the Sisters have created with the assistance of CRS helps the doctors’ work run smoothly, allowing them to see up to 300 patients a day.

Between the doctors’ visits, the Sisters make house calls, checking on patients. “Networking with CRS, we have begun a survey of Curvier village, as well as mapping it out using GPS technology, which helps us identify needs of the villagers,” Sister Knoerl says. “We then report to organizations that are able to help provide what is needed, be it food, water, seeds, temporary houses, roads, sanitation or medical help.”

She is happy Maryknoll Sisters Theresa Kastner and Susan Nchubiri have been assigned to Haiti. Sister Kastner is an adult education teacher from Stratford, Ontario, Canada, who served in Taiwan and most recently in Chicago on the Maryknoll Sisters orientation team. She is eager to help the people of Haiti, 85 percent of whom are Roman Catholic, to grow through communication skills training and knowledge of Scripture.

Sister Susan Nchubiri (wearing glasses) brings her skills as a social worker to help youth in Haiti.
(Courtesy of E. Knoerl/Haiti)

Sister Nchubiri, a social worker from Kenya who did youth ministry in Hong Kong, plans to work with women and children, some of whom are orphans or have been abandoned by parents who have no way to feed them.

“Our role is first to get to know the language and people, learning from them and giving them the tools they need to grow in self-knowledge, self-esteem and the ability to help themselves and their people,” says Sister Kastner. “This will be on a very small scale, but it’s a beginning.”

“Nothing is predictable in Haiti,” Sister Knoerl adds, “and life for most is about surviving another day. It is obvious their courage and hope come from the firm belief that God walks with them in their struggles. As we journey as partners in mission with them, we are confident that it is good for us to be here and the Spirit is alive in Haiti.”

Featured Image: Tents housed Haitians whose homes were destroyed by 2010 earthquake. 
(CNS/S. Parker/Haiti)

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About the author

Mary Ellen Manz, M.M.

Maryknoll Sister Mary Ellen Manz of Jamaica, New York, entered the Maryknoll Sisters Congregation in 1950 after having graduated from the Mary Louis Academy. She served in Chile, South Sudan and in different positions at the Maryknoll Sisters Center. She is also the Sisters’ liaison to Maryknoll Magazine and has written many articles about the Sisters for the publication.