Easter, the Sunday meant to symbolize renewal and rebirth, held significant meaning this year for a group of Miami Christians, including two nuns who were victims of recent violence against the clergy in Haiti.
The group, nearly 150 strong, traveled on a pilgrimage to seven local Catholic churches on Holy Thursday to prepare for Easter Sunday and its message of Christ’s resurrection and the spiritual awakening that sows. The group, which included young and old, local and foreign, visited churches whose congregations spanned the Haitian, Hispanic, African-American, Anglo and Ukrainian communities of South Florida.
The group’s mission: to use the power of prayer to effect change, both personal and for the greater good, in a world increasingly beset by beheadings, plane crashes, abductions and a rising tide of violence.
“Now is the time to pray,” said Solange Joseph, a parishioner from St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Miami Shores, who was on her sixth Holy Thursday pilgrimage. “So many things are going on in my country of Haiti,” she said, referring to the recent attacks against the island’s religious communities.
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Since November, at least 27 religious communities, mostly nuns, have been the target of 39 attacks across Haiti. Convents have been ransacked, nuns beaten and in the case of Father Marie, shot four times and left for dead. Three more convents have been attacked and pillaged since March 17.
“It’s everywhere and all over the world and when we pray, we pray for … everybody. Praying changes things. Praying changes bad to good,” Joseph said from the doorway of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church on Northwest 57th Court in Miami. The house of worship, with its distinctive onion-shaped domes, was the fifth stop of seven.
Every year, under the direction of Carolyn Fetscher, St. Rose celebrates the birthday of the Mass, the priesthood and the Holy Eucharist — the three gifts Jesus gave to the world on the first Holy Thursday and his Last Supper. This year’s pilgrimage was its biggest yet — three buses, 135 faithful, plus volunteers. Also, a multilingual bus driver from Cuba who sang in English, French, Italian, German and Spanish to keep spirits in the lead bus alight.
The two nuns, victims of the recent attacks in Haiti, joined the pilgrimage but declined to be identified. But their sacrifice and fortitude conveyed the meaning of the season.
“A plane goes into a mountain in France. Another plane disappears. And 300 girls are missing in Nigeria. All these things are going on in the world and a certain amount of people are trying to figure that all out. The rest of the world may not realize it but they are connecting,” Fetscher said of the group and its prayers. “They are trying to connect to God to bring meaning or sense to these things.”
As the busloads poured into Notre Dame D’Haiti on Northeast 62nd Street in Little Haiti, the pilgrimage’s second stop, the Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary said, “This church isn’t just a Catholic church, it’s the home of all Haitians.”
Jean-Mary said he knows both of the victimized nuns.
“To have this pilgrimage is a way to walk in solidarity with the persecuted Haitian church,” he said. “To be together with all those people, and for one another, is the most beautiful gesture. Life isn’t so easy for Haitians, not just in Miami, but the diaspora at large. The church needs to be a spiritual oasis, especially for our community.”
Each church along the route, which began in Miami Shores and traveled to Liberty City, Little Haiti, Key Biscayne, Flagami and the Fontainebleau neighborhood, received a reading of the Divine Mercy Chaplet prayer. Sister Faustina, a 1930s nun in Poland who was touched by a vision of Christ, inspired the prayer.
Upon her canonization in 2000, Pope John Paul II declared that the Sunday after Easter would be known as Divine Mercy Sunday, connecting the suffering, death, burial, resurrection, ascension of Christ with the subsequent sending of the Holy Spirit.
“I prayed the Divine Mercy in reference to my own brother-in-law who had an addiction problem for 20 years and now is free of this,” said Fetscher. “We are asking God to enlighten people, to reach out to Him in times of troubles. The Divine Mercy Prayer asks for God’s mercy.”
The Holy Week pilgrimage has its roots in ancient Christianity, in which people walked to local churches in the days leading up to Easter. At each stop they placed gifts and offered prayers.
The modern version, which requires more contemporary means of conveyance, was initiated by Sandra Arjune of Malden, Mass., a decade ago. Arjune, on a visit to Miami, where her daughter attended Florida International University, heard about Fetscher, who was leading a Rosary group at St. Rose. She proposed to her a Miami version of the Holy Thursday pilgrimage.
“I sent prayers to her, giving her a head start so she could go about doing it in Miami,” Arjune said. “Her one bus became two and now she’s doing three buses.”
The pilgrimages have since gone worldwide, with simultaneous treks including a handful in the States, St. Croix, Trinidad-Tobago, Uganda and Brazil. The Trinidad version, directed by her niece Michelle Arjune, has, like Miami’s, doubled in attendance over the years.
For the Miami faithful, their reasons for making the Holy Thursday pilgrimage were varied. Some echoed the Isaiah 11:6 proverb that concludes … And a child shall lead them.
Annabelle Jerome, 12, a sixth-grade student at St. James Catholic School in North Miami, came with her grandmother Maude St. Louis to pray for family members’ health.
“My uncles are alcoholics and my mom smokes. I want to pray for them and I want to give them the light to stop and to know what they are doing is wrong. And I came here to pray for my grandma’s soul and grandpa who is sick,” she said.
St. Louis added: “He is in a nursing home. He had a stroke and never regained consciousness. And I’m praying for the conversion of the rest of my family of God who are not into God.”
She hugged her granddaughter: “We are the warriors praying for the family.”
Andrew Massac, 41, came to document his mother Simone Massac’s devotion to the church by shooting video of their trip on an iPad. “I am blessed to have her.… If we all prayed and showed love it could conquer evil. So these trips are great and the fact we go to different churches is a wonderful thing.”
The Rev. Alexander Ekechukwu of Liberty City’s 65-year-old Holy Redeemer Catholic Church said he was “elated” to be part of the pilgrimage.
“We have one of the oldest African-American churches here, built before the Archdiocese of Miami,” he said. “That they are coming here shows the varieties of the people … the broad nature and universality of the Catholic Church.”
Fetscher kept the focus on prayer. This was to be a prayer mission, not a sightseeing tour, with each stop lasting about 15 minutes. “Walk, don’t talk,” she would command between stops so as to maximize the prayer time.
Her message got through when a planned lunch and bathroom break in Key Biscayne after a visit to St. Agnes Church went awry. Crandon Park officials turned the idling buses away from the park due to the Miami Open tennis competition.
“This is the first time we had to cancel lunch,” she said as the delayed buses rolled toward I-95.
“That’s OK, it’s a blessing,” a voice called out from inside the bus.
“We have Jesus!” replied another.
Finally, “But you had a singer,” said bus driver Roberto Geraldo, who, moments before, sang a few lines from a Julio Iglesias ballad. In French.
Call it his grace offering.
“Every single time you pray you pull grace out of the treasure chest,” Fetscher explained to the group at St. Rose. “Every time you do a good deed, with no self-gain, grace comes out. That’s the target Jesus won for us — this ability to pull grace out of the treasure chest below his cross. We have the ability to access God’s own love so we can resurrect with Jesus’ grace to a new life and bring it to everyone we meet.”
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