Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Haitian Catholics Mark Milestone As Community

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 29, 2007

Like many Haitians, Alberta Therlonge could easily slip into a pew at any Catholic parish around Atlanta for worship.

But instead, Therlonge drives 40 minutes across the city from her Cobb County home passing half a dozen other Catholic churches to pray and sing in her first language, Creole.

“When I sing, it means much more when I sing it in Creole,” said Therlonge, a 29-year-old substitute teacher who worships with the Haitian community at Notre Dame D’Haiti.

Paule-Marie Adeclat, who is in her 40s, is another strengthened by the community.

“Coming to my roots at the Haitian Mass, this is where I feel I belong. My culture, my traditions, my language, everything is there,” said Adeclat, a former medical office administrator. “This is my home, sweet home. My comfort zone.”

For 10 years, Haitian Catholics have met and prayed together as Notre Dame D’Haiti, translated from French as “Our Lady of Haiti.”

In the community’s infancy, a dozen faithful members attended services. Mass now attracts close to 150 churchgoers for worship and for an opportunity to be immersed in the Caribbean country’s culture at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, 2560 Tilson Road, Decatur.

The Haitian Catholic Community is one of the ethnic groups adding to the diversity of the Atlanta Archdiocese. Immigrants make up a sizeable share of the 650,000-member church here.

Celebrating the decade milestone brought out the community’s best. People fingered rosary beads during prayer services, and Bishop Willy Romelus of Haiti attended the anniversary festivities. Women put on their best dresses and men their nicest suits. The church basement was transformed for a banquet complete with white linen tablecloths and flower centerpieces. The emcee dressed in a white tuxedo with a purple bowtie. Denise Jules collected tickets at the door wearing a fur wrap.

Jules only joined the community two years ago, but now sings in the choir and is part of the welcoming ministry. The 66-year-old retired nurse’s aide, who speaks in French-accented English, lives in Gwinnett County. The drive to the church on Sunday and again on Thursday for choir practice is no sacrifice.

“I don’t care how long it takes me to go. I enjoy church,” said Jules, who once threatened to return to New York City if she could not find other Haitian Catholics.

The community is based at Sts. Peter and Paul Church. Father Guyma Noel originally founded the community out of concern that Haitians would leave the Catholic Church if the archdiocese did not reach out to them with services, especially in Creole, a language influenced by French, English, Spanish, African and Caribbean tongues.

The Mass is very familiar, with a few cultural touches. Scripture is read in either French, the second language of the country, or Creole. The music has Caribbean rhythms.

Special days for the community are New Year’s Day when people celebrate Haiti’s independence in 1804 with pumpkin and squash soups. Mother’s Day is celebrated on the last Sunday of May, not the second Sunday.

The years have not always been easy. Not too long ago, the community was more of a tenant than part of the parish. It would rent the church for prayer and bring in a hired priest. But inroads have since tied the Haitians and the English-speaking parishioners together. For instance, Sunday Mass is shortly after the English-speaking Mass, so parishioners from both Masses mingle.

And leaders hope that the anniversary celebration has contributed to the bridges being built to the wider parish as some two dozen English-speaking parishioners attended the banquet. For too long, there seemed to be barriers between the African-American parish and the Haitian community.

“I felt like it was God’s work. God was working through the community to gather us together,” said Adeclat, the Haitian community liaison on the parish council.

Father Eric Hill shared the sentiment. Father Hill took over as pastor of the parish nearly three years ago. The priest served the Hispanic community before arriving at the largely African-American parish. Adjusting to his new role, he is picking up Creole to speak during Mass and his homilies are translated from English to Creole.

The anniversary let everyone at the parish share in the celebration, he said. “The community is actually coming together,” Father Hill said, adding that parish members have to continue to grow together to prevent it from slipping back into two parishes under one roof.

The community still is confronting challenges. Some long to have a Haitian-born priest who can speak the language.

But Therlonge said the first priority for its future should be building up Our Lady of Haiti.

“We Haitians always struggle with community,” said Therlonge, who recited a poem in Creole at the anniversary dinner encouraging people to be more engaged in the community.

Church members want to attract more of their fellow immigrants. There are some 7,000 people of Haitian ancestry living in the metro Atlanta area, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. But community leaders said the number might be as high as 30,000 if undocumented people are counted. More than half of them are likely to be Catholic since that is the predominate faith of the country.

Adeclat said she is hopeful that the Haitian community can grow and reach out to the wider archdiocese. “We like people. We have hospitality,” Adeclat said.

For Therlonge, the community reconnected her to her heritage.

The teacher was born in Haiti, but her family moved to a predominantly Caribbean neighborhood in New York when she was a youngster. She arrived in Georgia to finish college but was an infrequent churchgoer at the Haitian community, which then met at Sacred Heart Church. It changed once she started to drive a friend’s mother to the weekly Mass in Decatur.

Therlonge has gone from being someone eight years ago who thought it was enough just to attend Mass to being a member of the anniversary organizing committee and has assisted with other parish activities.

“I’m there to serve,” she said.

And the tie to Haiti is an important gift she wants for her son, Khalen, who is 3.

“It will just pass on the culture to him and the language,” she said.