For Haitians, Jan. 1 marked not only a new year, but also a day to commemorate the 216th anniversary of their nation’s independence. At a New Year’s Day Mass at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart celebrating the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory joined Haitian Catholics in commemorating the holy day and also honoring that nation’s milestone of freedom.

In remarks after Communion, Father Luc Philogene, the chaplain of the Haitian Catholic community in the Archdiocese of Washington, noted the significance of Jan. 1 for people with roots in Haiti. On that day in 1804, Haiti – formerly a French colony – gained its independence from France after a rebellion led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, who had been enslaved.

That day, the priest said, remains “the most important day in our life as a people and as a nation. It is the day that allowed us to free ourselves from slavery by fighting the largest army at that moment in human history and become the first free black nation in the world.”

In his homily, Archbishop Gregory also underscored the significance of that date in history, noting that was also the day when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

“By a rather strange confluence of historical events, Haitians the world over and African Americans here in the United States of America share a common experience of our independence on this day Jan. 1st,” Archbishop Gregory said. “Haitians rejoice on this day of their national independence after a hard and arduous revolution waged against the French colonists. We African Americans celebrated the 157th anniversary this year of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation – a decree signed by the illustrious American President Abraham Lincoln that declared that all those held as slaves in the then Confederate States were freed.”

Washington’s archbishop said that the Catholic Church’s feast of Mary, the Mother of God was also a celebration of freedom.

“Jan. 1st is a day to rejoice in freedom – freedom from foreign domination, freedom from human bondage, and freedom from the power of sin and death in Mary’s generous acceptance to become the Mother of God and to share in God’s plan for human salvation,” he said.

Noting that people are often afraid to trust in God and each other, Archbishop Gregory noted that the heroes of Haiti’s revolution “were not held captive by their fears,” and he pointed out how Mary’s trust in God and her response to His invitation to become “mother and life giver to His Son,” pointed to a deeper freedom worthy for all people to pursue – “the freedom from sin and hatred, a freedom from intolerance and corruption, (and) a freedom from those activities that keep the human spirit shackled and imprisoned by lies and deceit.”

Members of the Haitian Catholic community pray during a Jan. 1 Mass celebrated by Archbishop Wilton Gregory at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, D.C. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

During the Mass, Archbishop Gregory praised the depth of faith and strength of character of the Haitian people, who in recent years have endured several natural disasters in that Caribbean island nation, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

Concluding his homily where he emphasized the importance of learning from history’s lessons on freedom and relying on faith, Archbishop Gregory said, “May it lead all of us forward into that freedom that matters most, is most enduring, and ultimately leads to life everlasting.”

The Mass celebrating faith and freedom was marked by reverent prayers and joyful songs in French and Creole, and opened with youth processing through the aisles of the majestic church bearing Haiti’s flag.

A member of the Haitian Catholic community carries the flag of Haiti in a procession that opened a Jan. 1 Mass marking the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, and also commemorated the anniversary of Haiti's independence. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

The congregation, estimated at about 700 people, included many families. Dignitaries attending the Mass included Ambassador Hervé Denis from the Embassy of the Republic of Haiti to the United States; Ambassador Leon Charles, Haiti’s representative to the Organization of American States; and Karl Racine, a native of Haiti who serves as attorney general for the District of Columbia.

Haitian Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington attend Masses in French and Creole at three churches: the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, D.C.; Our Lady of Sorrows in Takoma Park; and St. Camillus in Silver Spring. Concelebrating priests at the Mass included Haitian priests serving in the Washington area and priests from those parishes.

A reception after the Mass included traditional Haitian food, including Soup Jouwoumou (“Liberty Soup”), the singing of Haiti’s national anthem, and a cultural presentation that included poems, skits, songs and dances.

In his remarks after Communion, Father Philogene highlighted some of the activities of the 300 families in the local Haitian Catholic community, which include the sacraments, faith education, pilgrimages and retreats, a course on Haitian culture, and outreach to youth.

“I like the statement of St. John Paul II – ‘The youth are not the future of the Church. They are the present of the Church,’” the chaplain said.

That point was echoed after the Mass by one of the concelebrating priests, Msgr. Ray East, the pastor of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Washington, who said, “What I love is their faith is so resilient, and they want to pass it on to their young people.”