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Posted November 26, 2003
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A center of division

Haitians spar with Catholic Charities over place of their own

By Farah Stockman
          Globe Staff

They were told it would be their Citadel, a building for Boston's Haitian community, estimated at 75,000 strong, that would inspire as much pride as that famed fortress in their native land. They were told that the sagging, beloved Victorian house in Dorchester that has served as the Haitian Multi-Service Center for the last two decades would be replaced by a $10 million building a mile away.

But in recent months, as Haitian leaders shifted into high gear to help raise money for construction, some have found themselves increasingly at odds with Catholic Charities, the Haitian center's parent organization. First, they say, they had to fight to get the Haitian center's name on the new building, which will be shared with other groups. Then they had to fight an order closing the old center years before the new center would be completed. Finally, they battled a decision to name a non-Haitian to run their programs.

Now, some Haitian leaders, including the former vice president of the center's advisory board, are seeking a legal separation from Catholic Charities, and are asking for some of the funds that have been raised in the center's name.

"Fund-raising regarding the new building has made people believe that this is our building . . . a building of the Haitian people, not a Catholic Charities building where the Haitians would be housed," said Elda James, a Haitian-American lawyer who is part of the newly formed Committee to Preserve the Haitian Multi-Service Center. "I think people feel that perhaps they have been misled."

The controversy, which has divided local Haitian leaders, highlights the growing pains of an immigrant group that has become increasingly prosperous, educated, and eager to run its own affairs.

It also gives a glimpse of the resistance that Catholic Charities, one of the state's largest private social service providers, faces as it implements sweeping changes in the services it offers to 210,000 people statewide: the planned consolidation over the next decade of 47 scattered, semiautonomous programs into about 24 centralized sites.

Officials of Catholic Charities, the $40 million social service arm of the Archdiocese of Boston, say the new center on Columbia Road in Uphams Corner will serve more clients more efficiently under one roof, providing badly needed assistance to Cape Verdeans, Puerto Ricans, and others, as well serve as a new home for the cash-strapped Haitian center.

"Our work at Catholic Charities has never been to foster a specific ethnic group," said Neal F. Finnegan, chairman of Catholic Charities's board of trustees. "There's certainly disquiet about whether the new model will serve them as well as the old model. . . . But as far as I know, we have the support of the Haitian center leadership."

Joseph Doolin, who is leaving as Catholic Charities president after 14 years, said the organization has addressed the concerns of the Haitian center's advisory board. Eighty percent of the new building would be devoted to their programs, Doolin said.

"If there have been oversights in communication, it may well have been my own urgency to get this done before I go," said Doolin, who will retire next month. "I just wanted to make this happen."

Catholic Charities officials say that it is too expensive to rehabilitate the Haitian center on Bicknell Street and that the planned sale of affordable housing units that will be built on the same site will help finance the new center.

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, who unveiled plans for the new center in September, has said he believes the center should have a Haitian identity and has said he would try to learn some Haitian creole in an attempt to better connect with the community.

Amid all the disagreements over the details of the new center, one thing is clear: The planned demolition of the old center -- run on the motto "by Haitians, for Haitians" -- will be, at the very least, the end of an era. The converted convent, where a century-old master bedroom hosts a prenatal program and a receptionist greets visitors in Haitian creole, is slated for demolition in 2005. Next door, the old rectory at St. Leo's Catholic Church, where maize flour pudding once boiled on the stove for the day-care students, is closed.

The paint is peeling, a furnace has failed, and some of the stained glass windows are chipped, but it is in these buildings that many of Boston's Haitian lawyers, doctors, teachers, and ministers learned their first English words.

This is the place they gather every year to celebrate Haitian independence and where they turned in 1986, when the regime that had terrorized many of them into exile finally fell.

"Virtually every Haitian in Boston started there, had some kind of contact with the center," said James. "This center represents everything to the Haitian community. It means our identity."

The center's roots reach back to the late 1970s when two Haitian parishioners at St. Leo's, Gladys Dupont and Claude Edouard, helped the church's Haitian priest care for newly arrived refugees. Then Father Leandre Jeannot invited two laid-off social workers to use space in the church rectory for a new program, and they became the center's first volunteer administrators.

In the early years, the center was run mainly by volunteers. "We married people, we buried them, helped them look for a job, sent them for training," said Evelyn Jovian Prophete, who works at the center. "The first case of AIDS in Boston, we were up at the hospital waiting for the doctor, interpreting for that Haitian man who couldn't understand what he had."

In the beginning, the center's founders arranged to use the archdiocese as a conduit to raise funds, but always intended for the center to eventually become independent and move into a building of its own, said Frantz Monestime, the center's first director.

The center officially became a part of Catholic Charities in 1989. The center thrived, but calls for separation have waxed and waned over the years.

In recent months, the call to separate has grown again.

"A large number of people are extremely upset," said Yves A. Isidor, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth who says he has received hundreds of e-mails from worried signers on his website. But he said he is convinced that "there is no Haitian Multi-Service Center without Catholic Charities."

Elda James said she is part of a group of 17 activists who are struggling to persuade the center to become independent and Catholic Charities to hand over some of the funding.

"We are trying to work with the [advisory] board and with Catholic Charities, so that there is a successful separation, because we understand that we are going to be relatively new at being on our own," said James, who has sent letters to Catholic Charities asking for a dialogue on the issue.

Doolin said the organization is only responding to concerns brought by current members of the Haitian center's advisory board. One of them, Dr. Roger R. Jean-Charles said he hopes the center will one day stand on its own, but not now.

"I don't think we are ready yet," said Jean-Charles, chairman of the center's advisory board and a trustee of Catholic Charities who supports the new building. "Until we have a few rich Haitians, we will not be able to do it. For the time being, we need to form partnerships."

On Nov. 15, Haitians leaders, including the activists who want independence, and Catholic Charities officials gathered in Randolph for a sold-out dinner to celebrate the old center's 25th anniversary and raise money for the new one. Wine flowed, a band played, and O'Malley wowed the crowd by speaking in creole.

Meanwhile, Jean-Charles urged fellow Haitians to fund the dream of a new center. "We call it the Citadel," he said.

Globe correspondent Adam Krauss contributed to this article. Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company

2003 The New York Times Company

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