The choir sings during Mass on New Year's Day, celebrating the Solemnity of Mary, Holy Mother of God, and Haitian Independence Day, at St. Leo the Great Parish in Bonita Springs.

Haitian community celebrates independence

Bonita Springs | On Jan. 1, 1804, the first independent republic of black people was created in Haiti, the second nation to break the bond of colonialism after the United States.

So on the 214th anniversary of this historic occasion, the Diocesan Office of the Haitian Apostolate in conjunction with the Haitian Catholic community celebrated the independence of Haiti with a special Mass at St. Leo the Great Parish in Bonita Springs, Jan. 1, the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.

More than 600 from throughout the Diocese attended the special Mass, with Jesuit Bishop Joseph Gontrand Décoste of the Diocese of Jérémie, Haiti serving as the guest celebrant. Bishop Frank J. Dewane concelebrated the Mass along with the Haitian priests of the Diocese and Father Jarek Snoisek, Pastor of St. Leo the Great.

Bishop Décoste said he was impressed at how welcome the Haitian community was in the Diocese of Venice and thanked Bishop Dewane for his unwavering support. “It really means so much to all of us,” Bishop Décoste said. “We are a proud people who serve God in the best way we can.”

Bishop Dewane said he was honored and privileged to participate in such an important cultural celebration, noting the unique double celebration of independence and the Solemnity. He took note to thank the Haitian priests who were in attendance for their dedication in caring for their parishioners.
Parishes with large Haitian communities arranged buses for people to attend the Mass and reception that followed. All of the people who attended the Mass were dressed in their best clothes on this important day in the homeland’s history.

Josué Dumersaint of St. Francis Xavier Parish said it is hard to quantify how important Jan. 1 is for Haitians, adding that it is both a spiritual and emotional day.

“It is a celebration of the spirit of the Haitian people,” Dumersaint said. “To have it recognized by Bishop Dewane adds to the occasion. Having Bishop Décoste here, from my home Diocese, is a special gift.”

In 1803 the Haitians defeated the largest and most powerful army at the time — the army of Napoleon — in Cap-Haitien. However, the powerful countries branded Haiti an outlaw nation and France extorted a payment of 90 million francs in “compensation” for its lost “property” which included 600,000 slaves. The island nation has struggled in the intervening years to overcome both devastating natural disasters and political corruption.

Of note during the French occupation, there was a law that said the French were the only ones who could eat soup because they were in the upper class. Eventually when Haiti proclaimed its independence, all Haitians started to eat soup. It was a way to demonstrate that everyone was equal. Since then the custom of cooking and eating soup on New Year’s Day is a way to celebrate freedom. For this reason, soup was the first course offered during the dinner and cultural event that followed the Mass.