Haitian Catholic Community of Jacksonville Celebrates 10 Years

By Joy Batteh-Freiha

‘If you build it, they will come.’

This may be a famous line from the movie Field of Dreams, but it was also the impetus of a small group of immigrant Haitian Catholics living in Jacksonville in the early 2000s.

Organized in 2004, the Haitian Catholic Community of Jacksonville (HCCJ) began with only six members who met in homes as a means to keeping alive their culture and faith, until they were formally invited to have their own Mass at Blessed Trinity Parish in Jacksonville.

“Father Alan Bower who was the parish administrator at Blessed Trinity at the time, helped us get started,” said Dr. Johanne Belizaire, a member of the HCCJ and who serves as the administrative assistant. “We would gather after the 8 a.m. Mass to share the word of the Lord in Haitian Creole, our native language, and to discuss further activities of the HCCJ.”

“By the grace of God, we were authorized to have a Mass celebrated by a Haitian Creole or French speaking priest every three months,” she said. “Father Guy Noonan, who speaks French, celebrated our first Mass.”

Soon, it became necessary to find a more centrally-located parish to accommodate the growing community.

In Feb. 2007, the HCCJ moved to Prince of Peace Parish on Jacksonville’s Southside. Former Pastor Father Michael Larkin, who is now retired, offered the community the opportunity to celebrate Mass every second Sunday of the month in Haitian Creole or French. Also, they became more organized and planned activities centered around their faith and culture.

In 2012, Haitian Father Calonge Lemaine, who was serving a parish in the Northeast, came to Jacksonville and was named parochial vicar of Prince of Peace Parish.

Today, Father Lemaine celebrates Mass weekly in his native Creole to the Haitian community that numbers nearly 500, and serves as chaplain of the HCCJ.

“It is important for us to maintain our Catholic faith through our Haitian culture and traditions, and to be able to pass on to the next generation,” said Belizaire. “Being part of the Haitian Catholic Community gives me and others the opportunity to worship God and live our Catholic faith in our native language.”

On Aug. 31, the Haitian Catholic Community of Jacksonville celebrated its 10th anniversary of their first Mass, concelebrated by Bishop Felipe J. Estévez, Father Lemaine and another visiting priest.

“We are grateful for the many people who helped us along the way to get where we are today,” Belizaire said. “We are thankful for the many priests and ministries of the diocese for embracing diversity of cultures and recognizing that even though we come from different nations with various cultures, we are all God’s children who just worship him in different languages.”

Photos by Don Burk