March 31, 2010

Heart and soul in Haiti

The Rev. Marc Boisvert went to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere 12 years ago, and knows he will spend his life – all of it – helping on this island.

By Bill Nemitz

(Continued from page 1)

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Orphan boys pump water, left, to clean a washing tub at Hope Village in Les Cayes. Almost half of the relief supplies aboard the Maine ship Sea Hunter are being delivered this weekend to the orphanage and community. assistance program.

Photo by Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

click image to enlarge

Orphan boys greet visitors to their housing units at Hope Village in Les Cayes, where they maintain small gardens at the entrance to each dormitory. The village has recently added about 200 children, fleeing the aftermath of the Jan. 12 quake.

Photo by Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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It was not a vocation that came easily.

After graduating from St. Joseph's Seminary High School in Bucksport, Boisvert enrolled in an Oblate seminary in Massachusetts for two years. Then he dropped out.

"I fell in love," Boisvert explained. "It didn't work out."

He came home to Maine and took a job as a social worker at St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston. His fluent French and empathetic manner quickly made him a favorite among older patients -- and got him noticed by the hospital chaplain.

"They would talk and I would listen and explain things and they would feel better and they would ask for me," he said. "And they'd tell the chaplain, 'Oh, I was talking to Marc, and he made me feel good.'"

Go back to the seminary, the chaplain finally told him. It's your true calling.

"He was right," Boisvert said.

And so in 1984, at the age of 33, Marc Boisvert forever became "Father Marc."

His pastoral work at Our Lady of Hope in Castine and Mary Star of the Sea in Stonington led to a chaplaincy at Maine Maritime Academy. That, in turn, led to a seven-year stint in the Navy.

He served in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and then took a post at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay.

Once again, his Franco-American heritage came in handy.

French-and-Creole-speaking Haitians, fleeing political strife in their nearby homeland, poured into Guantanamo during the mid-1990s. Overwhelmed, military officials frequently called on Boisvert to serve as an interpreter.

"These people would tell me about these horrible things going on back in Haiti," Boisvert said. "The things they described were so bad that I thought they were exaggerating, so I resolved to go over there when I could and see for myself."

He finally made the trip in 1998. And alas, the refugees' stories of abject poverty, widespread disease and an overall sense of hopelessness proved heartbreakingly true.

"I've said it many times -- the biggest enemy of the people here is their government," Boisvert said. "I mean you can blame U.S. intervention in the past and the CIA and all that kind of crap, but the fact is (Haitian government officials) don't have it together. They've never had it together."

Resigning his military commission, Boisvert arrived first in Port-au-Prince and soon found his way 110 miles southeast to this city of 80,000-plus people. Now swelled with refugees from Port-au-Prince, Les Cayes has long been the social and economic center of southern Haiti.

Boisvert asked for and received the local bishop's permission to take an abandoned seminary in the middle of Les Cayes' crowded downtown district and turn it into an orphanage for boys left to fend for themselves on the street.

"We got up to 250 kids there," he said. "Then I decided it was time to buy some land."

The new campus, launched in 2004 with one modest building and a small agricultural project, has blossomed in six years into some 50 buildings, a guava and citron orchard, fields of corn, watermelon and eggplant.

But most striking, by far, are the hundreds of smiling, chattering children.

Wherever Boisvert goes, they surround him with greetings of "FaTHER! FaTHER!" and "Mon Pere! Bonjour, mon Pere!"

The children, all but a handful boys, crave affection. And Boisvert, with an uncanny knack for remembering their individual stories, readily provides it.

"This is Stanley," Boisvert said, hoisting a tiny boy up off the ground. "He's a pain in the neck -- but he's an honest pain in the neck."

As quick as he might be to comfort, however, Boisvert doesn't hesitate to chastise the boys and, if necessary, discipline them for mischief or rule breaking.

(Continued on page 3)

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Additional Photos

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The Rev. Marc Boisvert holds Stanley Toussiant, one of almost 800 orphans who live at Hope Village in Haiti. Boisvert, a Lewiston native, founded and operates the orphanage and community assistance program on the outskirts of Les Cayes.

Photo by Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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Douyon Roberson, left, and Phillipe Juste are two of the almost 800 orphans living at Hope Village.

Photo by Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist


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