Evanston Parish a Wellspring of Hope for Haitians

September 20, 2010

Text by Ted Regencia

EVANSTON, Ill — Rosalie Selinger Murphy, 45, is a familiar face at Evanston’s St. Nicholas Catholic Church. Her kindly smile and unassuming demeanor conveys goodwill; her calm yet jovial voice, reassuring.

Last Sept. 12, eight months to the day a powerful earthquake struck Haiti and killed 220,000 people, Murphy left for the capital Port-au-Prince, and traveled 80 miles north to Limonade, to bring what she calls “hope for the future” to many poverty-stricken families and students.

Murphy, a wife and mother of two, is the chairman of St. Nicholas’ Sharing Committee, a group that has organized micro-lending and scholarship programs for Haitians since 1998. In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, Murphy’s organization has taken on much greater importance.

Murphy’s work is cut out for her.

While in Limonade and the nearby town of Limbe, the Harvard graduate and University of Southern California-trained lawyer worked with a local group called Colectif Financement Populaire to extend loans to farmers who “have received no aid since the earthquake.”

Murphy and her group have raised, $24,000 since January for the micro-lending program. Of that amount, $9,000 came from St. Nicholas parishioners, and $15,000 from outside the parish.

According to Murphy, the funds will be used to form more self-sustaining groups, each with 20 to 25 members, who pool their own money and extend small loans to its own members. What’s unique about the group, she says, is that it’s focused equally on savings. She will also oversee distribution of loans to buy seeds and farm animals to sharecroppers.

Murphy’s trip to Haiti was her second in three years. She traveled with a group from St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in Columbus, Indiana. The parishes of St. Nicholas and St. Bartholomew are working with St. Anne in Haiti.

Another objective of the trip was to meet with St. Nicholas’ scholarship recipients, including those who were directly affected by the earthquake.  Four scholars were in Port-au-Prince during the incident, Murphy said.

One of them, named Elias, saw his university building collapse, and his friends and professors killed. The house where Elias lived was also destroyed, killing a friend “who had been housing and helping to support him,” wrote Murphy in a newsletter.

“Their houses were destroyed. Schools were destroyed. They have become essentially homeless,” Murphy said. She said she wanted to meet all the current scholars and “talk about how they are going to survive this terrible, terrible situation.”

At present, the Sharing Committee is supporting 20 to 30 students, ranging from primary, secondary, vocational and university levels. Each secondary student, for instance, receive $400 a year. Due to limited funds, university students only receive $600 to $750 of the annual $1,000 budget, Murphy said.

The lack of funding, however, is not holding her back.

“When I go to Haiti, it is challenging,” Murphy said. “But you know, I feel like it’s very worthwhile. And the students really, really appreciate what we’re doing.”

Reflecting on her community outreach work, Murphy said she is “following in the footsteps” of a “very humble and unassuming” St. Nicholas parishioner, Anna Boekstegen, now an octogenarian, who founded the Sharing Committee.

Murphy assumed the chairmanship post from Boekstegen. Although she and her family moved to neighboring Skokie six years ago, they have remained members of St. Nicholas.

“It is tremendously satisfying to be working with a great group of people in the parish. And to share this common cause to feel that we’re really making a difference in other people’s lives,” Murphy said, with excitement in her voice talking about the upcoming trip.

Since the project started in Haiti 12 years ago, students have graduated from the university with degrees in law and public administration, among others.

Upon her return, Murphy will present a report and photo gallery of the trip to St. Nicholas members on Oct. 10. A few days later, on Oct. 16, the church will also hold the annual Sharing Fest and fundraiser, featuring folk music from Haiti, Mexico and Nigeria. (Photo credit Rosalie Selinger Murphy)

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