By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published January 11, 2018 | En Español
DECATUR—In the 20th anniversary of its establishment, the Haitian Catholic Community of Atlanta celebrates une bonne année or happy new year with the assignment of its first full-time chaplain.
A member of the Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles, the Scalabrinians, Father Carl Jean will begin serving in January as chaplain to the Haitian community, which gathers every Sunday for Mass in French and Creole at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Decatur.
On New Year’s Day, he celebrated the annual Haitian Independence Day Mass for some 500 faithful, followed by a reception featuring the traditional Haitian squash soup, joumou. On Jan. 21, at 1:30 p.m., Archbishop Wilton Gregory will celebrate the chaplain’s Mass of installation.
At the Jan. 1 Mass, Father Carl met many enthusiastic Haitians from as far as St. Lawrence Church in Lawrenceville and St. John the Evangelist Church in Hapeville.
“I received a good welcome. Many are happy because they say that they’ve been waiting for a long time for a full-time priest and above all from Haiti and who speaks Creole,” said Father Carl, a native of Cavaillon in southern Haiti.
Large metro Haitian population in Atlanta
According to the Migration Policy Institute, the total number of Haitian immigrants in the United States tripled from 225,000 in 1990 to 676,000 in 2015. Atlanta has the fifth largest metro population of Haitians with internal migration from more established communities in New York and Florida.
In Atlanta Mass has been celebrated at Sts. Peter and Paul by Haiti natives Father Jacques Fabre, CS, and Father Gilbert Exumé, in addition to their primary assignments. Father Fabre is the administrator at San Felipe de Jesus Mission in Forest Park and Father Exumé serves as pastor of St. Matthew Church, Winder.
“I’m the first Haitian full-time priest with the Haitian community. I’m very happy on one hand to serve the community of my people, my countrymen. And on the other hand it’s a challenge to lead these people on their journey with God because one must reach beyond oneself to encounter the people, to bear fruit in this work,” reflected Father Carl. “I have a motto that I have to bear fruit where God plants me. I’m like a plant, a seed. God puts me here, and I have to bear fruit.”
Father Carl earned a bachelor’s degree at the San Alfonso University Foundation in Bogota, Colombia, and a master’s degree in spirituality at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Believing in the capacity to learn several languages, the polyglot speaks Spanish and Italian, as well as French and Creole, and is now learning English.
His first assignment following ordination in 2012 was at San Felipe de Jesus Mission alongside fellow Scalabrinian Father Fabre. He then returned to Haiti to serve as a rector at a seminary of the Scalabrinians. The congregation serves in more than 30 countries with a missionary focus on migrants. Having returned to Atlanta in November, Father Carl resides at the San Felipe rectory and looks forward to getting to know the community.
“I think we have many Haitians here, but we need pastoral care for them. It’s very important for them to have a chaplain because they’ve been at Sts. Peter and Paul for 20 years,” he said. “I need to know the community, to know the people, and I need to have a good relation with the people and guide them to God because we work for God, not for us.”
In addition to the Haitian Independence Day, the community also celebrates Haiti’s Flag Day on May 18 and the Caribbean nation’s patroness, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, on June 27.
A chaplain to meet the needs of the people
Father Fabre believes that having a full-time chaplain will enable the ministry to better meet the community’s social and spiritual needs—and stem the exodus to Protestant churches.
“Definitely it’s going to make a difference. Most of the Catholics went to Protestant churches, and hopefully with this presence, they will come back. They deserted because they were being taken care of by the Protestants,” he said. “I hope with this presence the community will grow. This will be stabilizing for the community.”
In terms of social needs, Father Fabre noted the new chaplain will have to assess the impact of the recent termination of the Temporary Protected Status of Haitians following the 2010 earthquake, which will force some 59,000 to leave the United States by July 2019. At San Felipe, Father Fabre added that his predominantly Mexican community has lost members weekly due to the dramatic increase of immigration-related arrests in 2017.
Father Fabre believes that Father Carl’s pastoral and listening skills will serve him well in building the ministry.
“His gift is being able to relate to people. He has good skills in relationships. That is going to help him out and also in terms of collaborating with other priests.”
Father Carl believes that the faithful can more fully experience the heart of their faith in their native tongue and begins his new ministry with a sense of blessing.
“I want to thank the archbishop who thinks of the Haitians, to all the people of the archdiocese, and also to the Haitian priests here, especially Father Jacques and Father Gilbert, who continued to celebrate Mass for the community and to minister to the community spiritually and pastorally,” he said. “When it’s celebrated in one’s language one lives the faith that one feels. It’s marvelous when the people have the opportunity to have a full-time pastor, a grace of God.”
“Worship in my own language”
Lector coordinator Alberta Therlonge agrees, having moved from Haiti to New York as a child. She has attended the Haitian Mass since relocating to Atlanta in 1999.
“It means a lot to be able to worship in my own language and be around my people and bring my kids here, and pass down the culture to them, for them to grow up in that kind of environment,” said Therlonge.
She said that Sts. Peter and Paul’s pastor, Father Bryan Small, and the Haitian priests have been very supportive, but that with an estimated 80,000 Haitian Americans in Georgia, a full-time priest will fortify the community.
“People are excited about Father Carl being our chaplain. We are preparing for the Mass of presentation,” said Therlonge, who drives 35 minutes from Douglasville. “It’s good to be able to work with someone hand in hand in giving us all the pastoral care Haitians need in the archdiocese. And thanks to Archbishop Gregory, who has always been very supportive of our community. I know he played a major part in this dream becoming a reality.”
She now is excited to help grow the community.
“Now we can plan and establish different goals for the community. It means everything to be able to worship in our language. Now we can build a legacy, and having Father Carl here will certainly help with that,” she said. “We have different Haitian groups all over Atlanta, but to have somebody provide pastoral and sacramental care is really important.” she said. “Some people don’t even know about the Haitian Catholic community. Even though we’ve been in existence 20 years, we’ve still got to get the word out because there’s a good group of Haitians here in Atlanta.”