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D.C. priest, a rock for area Haitians, missing in earthquake

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010

For the past three years, the gentle priest has been their anchor, the one members of Washington's small Haitian community depended upon to bring them together. It was the Rev. Arsene Jasmin who organized a big, unifying celebration this New Year's Day, who led Creole Masses at three parishes, who visited the sick and prayed for the dead.

And it would be Jasmin, head of Haitian outreach for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, who would be offering solace and guidance in the wake of the terrible earthquake in Haiti that has left people here struggling to learn the fate of loved ones and get aid to the right places.

If only he weren't missing.

The smiling, 44-year-old priest had left Monday for a spiritual retreat and a visit with family in his native Haiti and hasn't been heard from since -- another blow for a community reeling from the earthquake's emotional aftershocks.

"Without him around, people are very anxious and very worried," said Serge Bellegarde, 61, a translator at the Organization of American States who worships at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Church, the Columbia Heights parish where Jasmin has been based. "Just like in Haiti, people who are suffering, the refuge is in prayer."

It is prayer infused with conga drums and guitars, and delivered in Creole, the language of Haiti, with a spirit that's part African, part Caribbean.

The main priest at Sacred Heart, the Rev. Stephen Carter, has moved quickly to fill the void left by Jasmin's absence, organizing a special Mass to pray for Haiti. It will be held at 7 p.m. Friday at St. Camillus Catholic Church in Silver Spring, one of the three area parishes with Creole Masses, all of which Jasmin normally leads. Carter is hustling to get people information about making donations to Haiti and finding missing loved ones.

Even those whose families are safe have been stunned by the images of death and devastation coming from Haiti, including crumbled churches and crucifixes lying in the rubble. The body of Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot of Port-au-Prince was found Wednesday beneath his collapsed residence.

Jasmin's parishioners are hoping that he is not among the dead or injured.

Anne Marie Jean-Baptiste, who attends Sacred Heart, described praying for his return Wednesday night with a dozen others in the kitchen of the parish house where Jasmin lives.

"If we miss him, we miss a part of our family," she said.

Jasmin is the latest in a string of priests sent by the church to serve Washington's mostly Catholic Haitian population, which numbers between 10,000 and 20,000 people. He arrived three years ago, somewhat reluctantly, Carter said, as he was happy in his native Haiti and in the parish he ran there.

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