An unusual beginning

This Anglican church was Haitian from its very start
April 30, 2004

THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH of Haiti began in a way unlike any other church in the Anglican Communion. Never was it a church of expatriots, either British or American. It’s been Haitian from its beginnings in 1863. The details of the church’s founding and growth are a source of great pride to its members.

The Rev. James Theodore Holly, one of the U.S. Episcopal Church’s first African-American priests – ordained in 1856 at age 27 – left New Haven, Conn., for the Caribbean island with 110 emigrants in 1861. The plan was to found a sort-of colony, become citizens of the first black republic. The first year was disastrous as Holly lost nearly half his company and many members of his own family to disease. Holly remained and established Holy Trinity Church in Port-au-Prince.

Over the next 11 years, as he established more churches in the countryside and trained young men for the priesthood, he invited bishops to come and ordain his young colleagues. Holly’s vision was to create a church that would be indigenous and provide education, support to the whole person.

In 1874, with the church expanding in all directions from the capital city, Holly was consecrated bishop for Haiti, but not in the usual way. ECUSA, known then as the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, refused to support a black missionary bishop. He turned to the American Church Missionary Society, an evangelical group within the Episcopal Church. Several member bishops consecrated him at Grace Church, New York, and he became head of what he called the Anglican Orthodox Episcopal Church of Haiti.

Over the next decades until his death in 1911, Holly and his priests established elementary schools, normal schools and an agricultural school and began the medical work that the church carries on today in many parts of the country.

In 1913, two years after Holly’s death, ECUSA’s General Convention accepted the church in Haiti as a missionary district and consecrated a missionary bishop to lead it. Two North Americans served in that capacity, Harry R. Carson and C. Alfred Voegeli. Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince was constructed under Bishop Carson. The world-famous murals that adorn its sanctuary were commissioned by Bishop Voegeli and created by some of the most celebrated of Haiti’s artists.

The sisters of the Society of St. Margaret, an Episcopal religious order, established a convent and started running the elementary school in Haiti in 1927. Sister Anne Marie, who spent most of her life in Haiti, founded the Holy Trinity Music School in 1971. The Holy Trinity Philharmonic Orchestra, today 100 members strong, emerged from those trained by the school and by the members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra who visited each summer. Sister Joan founded St. Vincent’s School for the Handicapped, the country’s first, and for decades only, residential school and clinic for handicapped children and adults.

The first native-born Haitian bishop, Luc A. J. Garnier, was consecrated in 1971 at Holy Trinity Cathedral. He led the diocese until 1994, when the current bishop, Zaché Duracin, succeeded him.

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