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Rebuilding Dominica, the ‘forgotten orphan of the Caribbean’
Dominica might be the land that time forgot. Now, two years after Hurricane Maria brought almost unimaginable destruction to the island, its people are starting to feel that they also have been forgotten.
“The people of Dominica recognize that they are not high on the world’s list of places getting help,” said Redemptorist Father Matthew Allman, the newly appointed local superior for the Redemptorist community in Dominica. “They feel somewhat isolated. They know that they are not a high priority.”
The Redemptorists are starting a new fundraising initiative with a goal of raising $500,000 to rebuild the order’s churches on the island and to help raise the spirits of the people.
For more than 100 years, Redemptorists have been ministering to people on Dominica. The first Redemptorists there were priests from Belgium who arrived in 1902. In 1987, the Redemptorist province on the East Coast of the United States had assumed responsibility for the order’s missions in Dominica.
Dominica is a volcanic island, nestled between Guadeloupe and Martinique on the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea. It doesn’t have the white sandy beaches that draw vacationers to other islands, and without them, it has been bypassed by swanky resorts.
What Dominica did have was agriculture, with bananas being the main local crop. It also had some eco-tourism, with visitors hiking in the national parks that feature spectacular waterfalls and untouched rainforests.
The terrain is rough and mountainous, with 365 rivers traversing Dominica’s 290 square miles — an area less than one-fourth the size of Rhode Island. Fewer than 80,000 people live there.
“People sometimes say that Dominica is one of the islands that Christopher Columbus visited, and it’s one of the only islands he’d still recognize,” said Cardinal Joseph Tobin, a Redemptorist who is archbishop of Newark, New Jersey. “The people there are poor, certainly by American standards. But it was a stunningly beautiful country.”
When Hurricane Maria made a direct hit on the island on Sept. 18, 2017, the island was devastated. It was the first Category 5 hurricane on record to hit Dominica, sweeping across the island with sustained winds of 165 mph. An estimated 65 people were killed, including some whose bodies were never found.
Every home was damaged, and many were destroyed. Public buildings also took major damage. Redemptorist Father Franklyn Cuffy, born in Aruba and now a national of Dominica, was on the island when the hurricane struck.
“It came in the night, and I guess most people were in bed,” said Father Cuffy. “We were alerted that it was on its way.”
But no one was prepared for how devastating Maria would be.
“When it did come, it was the worst we ever had, a Category 5 hurricane,” Father Cuffy said. “Eighty to 85% of the houses were destroyed, the whole structures. Eighty-five percent of our church structures were also destroyed.”
The Redemptorist congregation, which includes several priests born and raised on Dominica and nearby islands, is in charge of two parishes and those parishes’ seven outlying chapels. It also had a retreat house, originally built to provide a place for respite and reflection for priests from all over the Caribbean.
All of the buildings were affected. The retreat house was completely destroyed, and its future is in doubt. The two rectories that were demolished have been replaced with one building, and the Redemptorist community has committed to rebuilding the worship structures that were ravaged by the hurricane.
“As Redemptorists, we are happy to be present for the people,” Father Cuffy said. “The fact that we were there as Redemptorists when the hurricane struck was a moment of hope, that we were there for their grief. Some people wonder, where is God in all that?”
Recovery and aid
Two years on, the island is slowly recovering, although many homes are still covered with blue plastic tarps instead of proper roofs. Supermarkets have food to sell, and while some people remain in shelters, there is a lot of construction going on, said Redemptorist Father Paul Borowski, the provincial superior.
Father Borowski visited the island in May 2019. At one site, he said, Sunday Mass is still being celebrated in an old Army tent, which is stiflingly hot by 10 a.m. In other places, Mass is celebrated outdoors, weather permitting.
In some areas, worship sites remain closed, and the people must make their way elsewhere for Mass. Doing so is time-consuming and difficult in the rough terrain, according to Father Borowski and Father Cuffy.
“In the parish where I minister, St. Ann’s Church, the roof is still gone,” Father Cuffy said. “You could have Mass somewhere else, but if you have a family with six children and they don’t have their own transportation, it’s very difficult.”
Father Borowski said he’s proud of the support Redemptorist priests provided to the people in the aftermath of the storm.
“The priests who were there stayed and worked shoulder to shoulder with the people,” he said. “They helped with the physical rebuilding of homes. Now we need to rebuild the churches, to rebuild people’s spiritual homes.”
But the community, like many religious orders, has little money to spare. A GoFundMe account started immediately after the hurricane only raised a few thousand dollars, all of which went to immediate relief.
“We took money out of our own pockets to help people buy food and things they needed immediately,” Father Borowski said.
Father Allman said that he was working in the United States when the news broke about Hurricane Maria. That day, he and some friends went to Costco to buy supplies such as tarps and diapers.
The pictures and video were “heartbreaking,” Father Allman said. “The island used to be so green, and everything was brown. All the trees were gone.”
|Help rebuild their church|
Help the Redemptorists meet their goal to raise $500,000 to rebuild the order’s churches and assist the people on the island of Dominica.
While Catholic Relief Services collected money for hurricane relief in 2017, much of the proceeds went to larger, more populated places. Houston was reeling from Harvey, which struck less than a month before, and Florida was recovering from Irma.
After Maria passed over Dominica, it moved on to wreak havoc in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory that is also still recovering.
The money CRS sent to Dominica went to the Diocese of Roseau, which is also rebuilding, according to Theresa Montminy of the Redemptorists Office of Mission Advancement, and most U.S. relief for Hurricane Maria went to Puerto Rico.
That’s understandable, Cardinal Tobin said, since those affected on Puerto Rico are Americans, and because millions of Puerto Ricans live on the mainland. Many of them organized and contributed to relief efforts.
“Puerto Rico has a community here that rightfully advocates for their needs,” he said.
But Dominica has few residents and no widespread expatriate community to send money home or to advocate for help. But that doesn’t mean U.S. Catholics can turn a blind eye to the suffering of their neighbors.
When Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan, Cardinal Tobin said, it was in response to a question about who should be considered one’s neighbor.
“The premise behind the question is that there are some people who are my neighbor and some who are not,” he said. “Jesus did not accept that premise.”
Father Cuffy said that the people remain faithful, and the will to rebuild is strong.
“The main thing is the finance,” he said. “The financial support is not there. We can get building materials. We have a lot of help from people from here and other islands to provide manpower. … Even looking at the island itself, you can see that nature has replenished itself. The problem is the financial aspect.”
“Dominica is almost the forgotten orphan of the Caribbean,” said Father Borowski said. “Not only are our priests living in fear of the next hurricane, so are the people of Dominica.”
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.