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NEW YORK – Standing behind the podium as the second ever Haitian-American to be appointed a bishop in the United States, bishop-elect Jacques Fabre highlighted how the mindset of people in his native country differs from that of Americans, and how that relates to his new role.
“The American system of life is always thinking about the future, the next generation, but us in Haiti, we think about today, and whatever I do is for me and my family,” Fabre said. “So, whatever we will be doing together is going to be to make sure that we leave a Church, which is stronger, a society, which is stronger, and a society where everyone can find their place and exercise the gifts that God has given us, all of us, different gifts.”
Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert Guglielmone of Charleston on Feb. 22, and appointed Fabre, the administrator at San Felipe de Jesús Mission in Forest Park, Georgia, and the local superior of Scalabrinian priests in Atlanta, as his successor.
Haitian Church leaders in the U.S. were thrilled when they found out.
“Today Haiti is in a very difficult position where you see some kind of indifference towards the nation of Haiti and for the Vatican to take that step forward is a way of uplifting the spirits of the community and a sense of hope that we are the people of God,” Father Reginald Jean-Mary of Notre-Dame d’Haiti Catholic Mission in the Archdiocese of Miami told Crux, adding that Fabre will be like “a bridge that facilitates communication and brings greater harmony between the Church of Haiti and the Church of the United States at large.”
Msgr. Pierre-André Pierre, the director of The National Center of the Haitian Apostolate located in the Diocese of Brooklyn, told Crux that Fabre’s appointment shows the universality of the Church and is “very, very dear” and “hopeful” to Haitian Catholics.
Pierre noted Fabre’s longtime work with the Haitian Apostolate calling him “a great missionary.”
“A man of great joviality. An open man. A man who goes to others,” Pierre said. “He doesn’t wait for you to come. He goes around. He is a man of the road, of the streets, of the houses.”
Fabre, 66, was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He immigrated to New York City in high school, and graduated from St. John’s University in Queens in 1981. He went on to study at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, Canada, and the Chicago Theological Union and the Scalabrini House of Theology, also in Chicago. He earned a master’s degree in divinity and a licentiate in human mobility (migration) from the Pontifical Urbaniana College in Rome.
In response to the news of Fabre’s appointment, Father Brian Shanley, the president of St. John’s University, told Crux in a statement that Fabre reflects “the founding Catholic and Vincentian mission of the University.”
“The immigrant journey of Bishop-elect Fabre and his pastoral and professional success personifies the enduring story of St. John’s,” Shanley said. “On behalf of the extended family of the University, I offer him my heartfelt blessings and congratulations.”
Fabre was ordained a priest in 1986 at St. Theresa of Avila Church in Brooklyn. His ordination was led by then-Auxiliary Bishop Wilton Gregory of Chicago. Fabre’s first assignment after ordination was as the parochial vicar at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Immokalee, Florida (1986-1990). From there he served as chaplain to Haitian refugees at Guantanamo Base, Cuba (1990-1991), and as pastor at San Pedro de Macorís parish in the Dominican Republic (1991-2004). He then returned to the states as parochial vicar at St. Joseph’s parish in Athens, Georgia (2006-2008), and then held the same role at Holy Trinity parish in Peachtree City, Georgia (2008-2010), before assuming his current position.
After Fabre’s consecration and installation on April 29, he will join Gregory as one of seven Black bishops in the United States. Fabre will be the second Haitian-American U.S. bishop after Auxiliary Bishop Guy Sansaricq of Brooklyn, who died last year. Fabre is the first to lead a diocese. Fabre will also be the first Black bishop in the history of the Diocese of Charleston.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who has been an advocate and leader for Haitian Catholics for decades, visited Fabre in both Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Wenski stayed at Fabre’s rectory in the Dominican Republic, and remembers how the shower was a five gallon bucket of water and a ladle.
“So he’s been close to the poor and I think people that work with the poor bring a tremendous gift to the Church when they rise to positions of influence in the episcopacy,” Wenski told Crux.
The archbishop added that Fabre brings a lot to the U.S. Catholic Church with his experiences.
“He’ll be a good advocate for immigrants in Charleston and having been raised in the United States he’ll have a good understanding of the African American experience,” Wenski said. “He’ll also bring to that the richness of his own Haitian background, and also the fact that Haitians have been a part of the American Catholic Church since the beginning of our Church.”
At the introductory news conference Fabre spoke mostly of his family, then on the state of society, and towards the end gave a preview of his ability to fluently speak five different languages – English, Spanish, Italian, French, and Creole.
Fabre acknowledged the division that exists in current society, and suggested that people remember that everyone is a part of one humanity and “we’ll be better off” bringing that humanity together.
One anecdote Fabre gave about his family was the moment he told his mother that he wanted to be a priest and she “looked at me in the eyes and said ‘if you’re going to do it, do it right.’” He also spoke of his mother’s lifelong devotion to the Catholic faith, and involvement with the Legion of Mary in the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Mary Modeste, the president of the Legion of Mary Brooklyn/Queens Comitium, told Crux that she remembers Fabre’s mother, Anita Fabre. Modeste couldn’t believe the news of Fabre’s appointment to the Diocese of Charleston.
“There’s no words to express,” Modeste said. “This is simply fantastic, amazing.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg