By Tanya Connor
“God will be very present in that orphanage.”
Cherylann Gengel was talking about the “B-shaped” home for children in Haiti which she and her husband, Leonard, a Holden builder, built in memory of their daughter, Britney. Through the “Be Like Brit” nonprofit organization they established they’ve raised about $1.8 million, Mrs. Gengel said.
Just before she was killed in the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Britney, a college student on a mission trip, had texted her mother her life plans: to start an orphanage there.
Tomorrow, a week before the third anniversary of that earthquake, the orphanage she inspired is to be dedicated in Grande Goave. Mrs. Gengel said she and her husband and their other children, Bernard, 20, and Richard, 17, and 60 other people were to fly to Haiti today.
Father John F. Madden, pastor of St. John Parish in Worcester, the Gengels’ parish, is to accompany them on what will be his first trip to Haiti. Bishop McManus, who has been “very supportive,” is expected to come at another time, she said.
“Building the orphanage is clearly an amazing accomplishment, especially there,” Father Madden said. “Also, with that, what they have accomplished themselves as a married couple and as a family. Britney was their oldest and their only girl. To lose her from their family was so difficult.” He said her brothers were crushed, but are carrying on.
“Lenny and Cherylann have this beautiful relationship,” he added. “For us at St. John’s they’re such an example. We come to Mass trusting in God’s grace, trying to endure the cross, and then we see them and we know that anything is possible with God.”
Mrs. Gengel said Father Madden is to pray at and dedicate the orphanage, along with Father Robert J. Lord, of the Hartford Archdiocese, who witnessed the Gengels’ marriage and administered their children’s sacraments, and Pastor Lex Edme, the orphanage’s Haitian representative. The Gengels and others are expected to say a few words.
The visitors are also to see the fishing village in Grande Goave, established by Food for the Poor, which Britney was to help build during her fateful trip with that mission, Mrs. Gengel said. She said there is plaque there in memory of her daughter and the other earthquake victims who were on that trip from Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.
Sunday the priests are to concelebrate Mass, and the travelers are to visit Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, where Britney died. The hotel is being rebuilt, Mrs. Gengel said. They are to fly back that day.
“I just did not want to be in Haiti and be at the Hotel Montana on the twelfth,” she said, explaining why the dedication is not being held on the anniversary of the earthquake. “We’ll be at St. John’s Church at the 4:15 Mass,” the Lord’s Day vigil at which prayers are to be said for Britney on the anniversary of her death.
“The Catholic Church has been wonderful,” Mrs. Gengel said, adding that without her faith she could not have gotten through this tragedy.
“Father Madden – he was my first phone call as soon as the earthquake happened,” she said. “I called him and asked him to pray, and of course he did.”
Father Madden is on the orphanage’s programming committee, which is planning the daily routine, morals, discipline etc., she said. He and Pastor Debra Pallatto-Fontaine, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who teaches at Becker College in Worcester, are working on plans for religious education at the orphanage.
“We’ve been working on getting Bibles for the kids,” Father Madden said. He said he was also to contact religious orders in Haiti to see if they could provide religious education. Mrs. Gengel said not all the orphans will be Catholic and their religions will be honored. But, she said, “Len and I are Catholic; Brit was brought up Catholic.” She said it was very important to her to make sure their Catholic faith would be present at the orphanage.
“It’s the daily presence of God and Jesus there,” she said. She said there will be prayers before dinner and bedtime, that there is an outdoor chapel there, and that a copy of a picture of Jesus which Father Lord gave their family will be displayed.
“We’ve been so blessed,” Mrs. Gengel said, noting that many people have helped with the orphanage. Among those expected to help in the future are students and adults from St. John High School in Shrewsbury who plan to spend their spring vacation there on a “Britsionary” mission trip, she said.
“I ask for prayers all the time,” Mrs. Gengel said, explaining that at the orphanage they will be taking the lives of real human beings into their hands. “It’s a big responsibility and we don’t take it lightly.”
It broke her heart when a mother wanted to hand over her baby to her, she said. She said parents take such drastic measures not because they don’t love their children, but because they do; they want a better life for them.
The orphanage, which is to have room for 66 children and will probably end up with more, is to open sometime after the dedication, once the staff is trained, Mrs. Gengel said. She said the space is needed first to house about 80 of some 120 people expected to attend the dedication, including Britney’s friends, fellow travelers who survived the earthquake, and family members of another victim.
She said it was sad; Britney should be there too. Then, thinking of her daughter being involved from the next life, she decided, “She’s running the whole thing.”
– Editor’s note: “Heartache and Hope in Haiti: The Britney Gengel Story: Making Our Daughter’s Last Wish Come True,” by Mr. and Mrs. Gengel with author Gary Brozek, is to be out in paperback Jan. 12, and in electronic editions on Jan. 21, Britney’s birthday. It can be pre-ordered through the website www.BeLikeBrit.org. All proceeds are to fund an endowment for the orphanage.