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1958: MCC's Beginnings in Haiti

1958: MCC's Beginnings in Haiti

 John Bender speaks to the unit at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new MCC house in Grande Riviere du Nord.

John Bender speaks to the unit at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new MCC house in Grande Riviere du Nord.

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‘Men anpil, chay pa lou’ — ‘Many hands make the load lighter’

Over the last 60 years, MCC has worked alongside Haitian partners, putting our hands together in healing suffering, cultivating the soil, supporting the vulnerable, and holding on to peace. In 2018, MCC in Haiti will celebrate this legacy through a series of six stories highlighting each decade.

Despite its close location to MCC’s North American offices, MCC had been operating globally for almost 30 years prior to beginning work in Haiti in 1958. MCC Executive Secretary, Orie O. Miller visited Haiti in 1955 after Hurricane Hazel noting:

“One wonders how we as Mennonites could have been so ignorant and insensitive to Haiti and its need for so long…we hope…to learn to know these people and their needs better, and perhaps thus be led to His [God’s] clearer and fuller will.”

An investigative trip by William Snyder and Edgar Stoesz in 1957 provided the foundation for MCC to begin working in Haiti with partner organizations the following year. The first MCC workers arrived in Haiti in January 1958 to begin working with agricultural partners in Petit Goave, a community in southern Haiti, followed by workers arriving to serve at Hospital Albert Schweitzer, located in Deschapelles in the Artibonite Valley.

 Dr. John Bender examines a baby at Hospital Grande Rivere du Nord.

Dr. John Bender examines a baby at Hospital Grande Rivere du Nord.

Stoesz returned to Haiti in Sept. 1958, at which time the Haitian Ministry of Health offered the opportunity for MCC to administer a hospital in Grande-Riviere-du-Nord, a community located in Northern Haiti. The local hospital, built in the 1930s during U.S. occupation, had been left unused for more than 20 years despite the significant unmet medical needs of the rural community. MCC made an agreement with both the Haitian Ministry of Health and Pote Cole, a cooperative organization between the Haitian and American governments. MCC agreed to provide personnel and fund operational costs, while the governmental agencies took responsibility for preparing the hospital for use as well as providing $200 a month for services. Unlike Petit Goave and Hospital Albert Schweitzer, this project partnered directly with government agencies and placed the administrative responsibility on incoming MCC workers.

MCC service workers John and Naomi Bender, along with their two young daughters, arrived in Haiti in September 1959 after John accepted the position to serve as both a medical doctor and the medical director at the Grande Riviere hospital, scheduled to open in November.

“We were naïve and inexperienced but idealistic enough to think that we could be of service to that country and its needy people,” wrote Bender in his memoir Mennonite Central Committee in Grande Riviere du Nord, Haiti, 1959-1960. “We had faith that, if God wanted to use us there, our safety and necessities of life would be provided.”

During their first visit to Grande Riviere, the Bender family saw the scale of challenges before them. Having sat vacant for decades, the structure of the hospital building had deteriorated significantly. John Bender remembers that there was no generator for electricity, no medical equipment had been ordered, and one hospital room had become home to a group of local turkeys. Due to political instability at the time, progress for renovations and hospital set-up moved slowly.

Despite the early setbacks, Bender and other MCC workers hosted the first open clinic day at the hospital on Dec. 9, 1959, in two partially finished rooms at the front of the building. Having a limited supply of medical equipment, no surgical instruments, and makeshift tables, the staff was surprised to find local community members waiting outside the gates before the clinic even opened the first morning. Hospital staff treated a total of 71 patients the first day, and numbers quickly grew—just two months later, hospital staff were treating over 200 patients a day. Bender recounts the blessing of capable hospital staff who not only adeptly cared for patients, but also became a source of friendship and support for the Bender family.

“In sharp contrast to the difficulties… we had wonderful experiences with the Haitian people we employed,” said Bender. “Without their help, we could not have survived. Leaving those friends at the end of our term was like parting from family.”

“In sharp contrast to the difficulties… we had wonderful experiences with the Haitian people we employed,” said Bender. “Without their help, we could not have survived. Leaving those friends at the end of our term was like parting from family.”

The hospital continued to work at limited capacity for the first two years after opening. Faced with overwhelming need, triage nurses were forced to evaluate patients on a case-by-case basis outside the gates of the hospital and selected the most acute cases for care. Long hours and difficult decisions marked daily life for those serving at the hospital, but the work continued through these early start-up years and resulted in a long-lasting legacy and a continuously functioning hospital.

MCC fully transferred the hospital administration and operations to the Haitian Ministry of Health 21 years after its opening, and the hospital continues to operate today. The early determination, care, and compassion shown by MCC workers in Grande Riviere continues to influence MCC’s work in Haiti today through leaders like Pere Eddy Eustache. Growing up in Grande-Riviere-du-Nord, Père Eddy, as Eustache is often called, has strong memories of the influence of the hospital in his community and life.

“I remember, growing up as a boy in Grande-Riviere-du-Nord. The MCC clinic was wonderful for our town,” said Père Eddy. “Something I always remember is that they [the MCC staff] were totally devoted to their work and the community. There wasn’t a barrier between us - they treated us as equals. We were so proud of that clinic. It was the biggest and best one in the area, and people traveled very far to come get treatment there. They always treated people wonderfully, kindly and with the best care.”

Something I always remember is that they [the MCC staff] were totally devoted to their work and the community. There wasn’t a barrier between us - they treated us as equals.

After finishing high school, Père Eddy became a priest and psychologist, with a goal of giving back and ministering to people who were suffering. Père Eddy became the first psychologist at Zanmi Lasante, the Haitian branch of the international nonprofit Partners in Health. MCC in Haiti is currently partnering with Zanmi Lasante and Père Eddy’s mental health team through a three-year project that supports 31 community health workers and 14 psychologists across 11 Zanmi Lasante health centers, providing mental health care with an added focus on developing trauma screening and intervention.

“Getting to know MCC again now that I am grown, so many years later and working together on this mental health project, it brings back so many good memories from my childhood and it gives me a feeling of contentment that we can put our hands together and help people together again as equals,” said Eddy.

It gives me a feeling of contentment that we can put our hands together and help people together again as equals.

As Orie O. Miller hoped, MCC continues to pursue deeper knowledge of the people and needs in Haiti. Despite challenges in the beginning, the determination of the workers hospital at Grande-Riviere-du-Nord provided the opportunity to enact change and provide relationships that shaped the work of MCC in Haiti for decades to come. 

Read more:

  • Bring color to ‘Men anpil chay pa lou’ with this coloring page made by MCC staff member Madeline Kreider Carlson. 
  • For more information and pictures about MCC's work in Haiti over the 60 years, check-out this interactive timeline.
  • Read more about MCC's work in Haiti in the 1970s.

 Alexis Kreiner is from Akron, Ohio. She graduated from Malone University in Canton, Ohio, with a degree in Communication Arts (Public Relations). She is currently working co-ordinating communications materials for MCC's 60th anniversary in Haiti.

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Interactive Timeline: MCC in Haiti: A History

Interactive Timeline: MCC in Haiti: A History