When an earthquake struck Haiti in January of 2010, the repercussions were felt in Hagerstown — not on a seismograph, but in the hearts of parishioners from St. Ann Catholic Church.
For weeks, they followed news reports of a leveled Port-au-Prince.
They listened to estimated death tolls, stories about the growing number of refugee camps and outbreaks of cholera.
They wondered about destruction in outlying areas.
And they worried about their friends.
For about 15 years, there has been a special relationship between St. Ann and St. Claire Catholic Church in the diocese of Dessalines, Haiti.
The connection is spiritual — praying for each other; human — visiting each other and doing service projects; and material — financing programs to fight poverty and promote education.
But, along the way, it also has become personal. Friendships have been formed.
That's why local church members were greatly relieved to learn that the people of Dessalines suffered little damage from the earthquake.
They've become like family to the local church community.
St. Ann and St. Claire officially became sister parishes in 2004 when the Hagerstown church became one of 20 parishes in the Archdiocese of Baltimore to have sister parishes in the diocese of Gonaives, Haiti.
But the connection between the two churches really began in 1997, said Agnes Supernavage, head of the Haiti outreach committee at St. Ann.
"One of St. Ann's parishioners, Pat Firey, went to Haiti with a group from the Archdiocese of Baltimore to do volunteer work," Supernavage explained. "She met the pastor of St. Claire at that time and upon her return to Hagerstown, got the pastor of St. Ann interested in promoting access to education and tuition assistance in Haiti."
Since then, St. Ann parishioners have helped Haitians build classrooms and pay teachers' salaries, have started a sustainable agriculture program that helps St. Claire lease and purchase land and grow rice for a feeding program, as well as cash crops for profit.
They've also shared their expertise on a wide range of subjects when they travel twice a year to visit their sister parish.
The trips include a one-week service trip in February, which usually involves teaching skills to adults and children, Supernavage said. About five or six local people make the trip.
During the summer, about 10 St. Ann teens and adults head to Haiti for a one-week camp for about 100 children from the three schools of St. Claire.
"The camp is merit- based for the Haitian kids and we hear that it is a powerful incentive for the students to excel in order to be selected for camp," Supernavage said.
This past February, St. Ann parishioners once again traveled to their sister parish — but this time there was a special request.
"Father Marc-Edy Dessalines, pastor of St. Claire, had asked us to teach hygiene, basic sanitation and hand washing to all the kids in the schools — about 1,500 students — as well as some of their parents," Supernavage noted.
Supernavage said the cholera epidemics following the earthquake had many victims.
"Fortunately, the pastor of St. Claire was able to obtain a water purification system for the main school and has been digging wells in several of the outlying villages," she noted. "Each one of his three schools has access to clean water and he makes those wells available to the whole community, as well, before and after school."
But the priest still felt it was important to stress good hygiene.
The group used "very visual materials and interactive skits to get the message across, despite the language barrier. Kids in Haiti speak Creole," said Supernavage, who was born and raised in Belgium and is a native French speaker. Since making her first trip to Haiti in 2001, she has been the group's main communicator.
Those making the February trip included Mary Lawrence Melvin, Lauren Voglesong, Ralph Parchment, Father Marty Nocchi and Supernavage.
The presentation, she said, was well received.
"We were happily surprised to realize that the recent cholera outbreak had sensitized the kids and that they knew how germs spread. We also taught kids and their families how to make tippytaps — a simple device to wash hands with very little water," she explained.
The group also had an opportunity to check in on the youngest children in the schools — more than 600 pre-kindergarten children who are part of St. Ann's Littlest Angels outreach project.
The project is supported by donations during the Lenten season, which are then used to feed the preschoolers on a daily basis.
Statistics provided by St Ann show that one in eight Haitian children dies before his or her 5th birthday.
Supernavage said the food provided by local donations "is probably the only meal they get that day. We know we are also helping their families because if one or two kids eat at the school, that leaves more food for the rest of the family."
This year's fundraising efforts hopes to reach a goal of feeding 520 children.
"It costs $60 to feed a child one meal a day for the whole school year," Supernavage said. "We will take the final check to St. Claire during the summer camp for next school year's feeding program."
Supernavage calls the visits to Haiti "a life changing experience."
"The expectation is usually that people who live in such abject poverty cannot possibly be happy or find fulfillment," she said. "Yet, interacting with the Haitians, we find that their resiliency, their hope for a better future for themselves and especially for their children, their faith in the goodness of God is a very humbling experience."