When I watched the fire consume the beautiful spire that for so long graced the roof of Notre-Dame de Paris, I was moved by the destruction, but also reminded of another partly destroyed cathedral, in a very different place, that still lies in pieces, forgotten: Notre-Dame de l’Assomption. The vaulting, overweening Haitian cathedral in downtown Port-au-Prince was brought to its knees in the earthquake of January 12, 2010. That huge seismic event killed hundreds of thousands of Haitians and also managed to knock down almost every government building and many of Haiti’s 19th- and early-20th-century Catholic churches, such as the cathedral, sending huge, heavy bells and shards of stained glass down into the city’s broad streets.
Ever since the earthquake, Haitians have imagined rebuilding this central structure of the capital. Some steps were taken early on, but as they say in Haiti: Epi? Epi anyen. “And then? And then, nothing.” Almost a decade later, I wonder whether Haiti really needs to invest in this symbol of a past era.
Unlike the French government, the Haitian government has been entirely absent from the discussion about reconstruction of the national cathedral, for many reasons. First, if someone else can be made responsible for the work and financial outlay on a project, then the Haitian government, which is usually poorer than, say, Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos, is going to let the other group do the job—in this case, the Catholic Church. Also, Haiti, infinitely more than France, has extreme and pressing problems that are far more serious than the rebuilding of some old building. Education, basic nutrition, health care, energy infrastructure, infrastructure tout court, sanitation. And, of course, security, as elections approach and gang violence escalates. Not that the Haitian government is doing anything much about those either.