Deacon Rodrigue Mortel, who as director of the Missions Office for the Archdiocese of Baltimore inspired dozens of parishes in the archdiocese to support sister churches in his homeland of Haiti and led hundreds of Catholic high-schoolers on summer missions there, died April 22 at his home in Hershey, Pa.
Deacon Mortel, 88, led a life worth examining.
As a child, he experienced homelessness in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. In his professional life, he became a pioneering obstetrician, surgeon and researcher, and the first director of the Penn State University Cancer Center.
In his faith life, Deacon Mortel earned the trust of leaders throughout the Baltimore Archdiocese.
Some of its parishes continue to assist churches in the Diocese of Gonaïves, continuing the work of what began as the Baltimore Haiti Project. The archdiocese was among the benefactors which helped him build an elementary and high school in his hometown of St. Marc, about 50 miles north of the capital city of Port-au-Prince.
Deacon Mortel’s drive to educate, first himself and then others, never abated. At age 76, when most of his peers had long slowed down, he led a pilgrimage to his hometown, a few months after an earthquake had ravaged Haiti, to baptize a courtyard full of children in the Catholic faith.
“When you are baptized, you have to be king, priest, prophet,” Deacon Mortel told the Catholic Review in 2010. “What you learn, you have to give to somebody else.”
Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori said he was “grateful to God” for Deacon Mortel’s “visionary leadership.”
“Responsive to the grace of God, Deacon Mortel labored tirelessly to improve the lives of countless children and young people in Haiti,” Archbishop Lori said. “Through education, he gave them a promising future. At the same time, he helped open the eyes of students and parishioners across the Archdiocese of Baltimore and beyond to the importance of the church’s missionary work.”
Deacon Mortel, whose many honors included receiving the Horatio Alger Award, which recognizes rags-to-riches stories, was the author of three books, covering his journey from poverty to philanthropy, which ranged from the Mortel High Hopes for Haiti Foundation to he and his wife, Cecile, endowing two visiting scholar lectures at Penn State University.
In his 2000 autobiography, “I Am From Haiti,” Deacon Mortel recounted a pivotal moment from his childhood, his family’s eviction from its home when he was 10. The book recounted his mother’s lament: “If I had an education, this would not have happened.”
According to a biography provided by his family, Deacon Mortel graduated from the Medical School of Port-au-Prince and practiced general medicine in rural Haiti for two years.
“He was raised in a shack, with no water or electricity,” said James Taneyhill, the chairman of the board of advisors of the Mortel Foundation. “There was only money when his mother found work. At night he had to study under a street lamp, but somehow grew into a world-renowned obstetric gynecologist.”
Deacon Mortel told the Review in 2010 that he had found his training to be substandard, so he moved to Montreal, Canada, to continue his education and entered the United States in 1963.
Deacon Mortel studied in Philadelphia and New York City, and in 1972 joined the faculty of Penn State University College of Medicine in Hershey, rising to full professor. Putting down roots there led to his relationship with the Baltimore Archdiocese.
As an altar boy in St. Marc, Deacon Mortel had considered the priesthood. In south central Pennsylvania, he began a long friendship with the then-bishop of Harrisburg, the late Cardinal William H. Keeler, who in 1989, became Archbishop of Baltimore. Cardinal Keeler mentored Deacon Mortel across diocesan and international boundaries.
He entered the permanent diaconate formation program in 1998, studied at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Roland Park, and was ordained a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Gonaïves July 5, 2001, in St. Marc.
“It was a spectacular day,” said Daniel Medinger, who covered the liturgy as editor/associate publisher of The Review. “A lot of people have this view of Haiti as a horrible place, but it was a beautiful day and the church was jammed. You could see the pride the people of St. Marc had in Deacon Mortel.
“As director of missions, he was a true missionary. His mission was to educate the children. He believed that they were the future of Haiti.”
Founded in 1997, the Mortel Family Foundation was responsible for the operational costs of The Good Samaritans School (“Le Bons Samaritans”), an elementary school that opened in 2001.
Around the corner from his home in St. Marc, it has educated and fed more than 9,000 children, many of them outcasts. In 2011, Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, then the Archbishop of Baltimore, dedicated the James M. Stine Secondary School, in St. Marc. It has enrolled more than 4,800 students.
Another 1,100 children have come through a preschool in St. Marc, where Deacon Mortel’s foundation also sponsors adult education. The Cardinal Keeler Center, a trade school, is to the north, in the town of Gonaïves.
Deacon Mortel had boundless energy, curiosity about those he encountered, an infectious laugh and, when called for, the gravitas befitting the dire circumstances in Haiti.
“He found a way to build one of the best grade schools in Haiti, one which admits only those children who would not otherwise attend any school,” Taneyhill said. “Then he opened the best high school in Haiti, and a robust preschool. He made the money appear, he made the construction happen. He just did it.”
After his ordination, which coincided with his retirement from medical practice, and mindful that the Harrisburg Diocese had more stringent travel policies,
Deacon Mortel began exploring parish partnerships between the Baltimore Archdiocese and the Diocese of Gonaïves.
The Baltimore Haiti Project was begun in 2001, and led to dozens of parishes supporting nearly 50 parochial schools and feeding 23,000 children on a daily basis, most in rural settings.
Some parishes took their sponsorship to great lengths, sending, in addition to financial assistance, engineering and logistical expertise to help their sister parishes in construction projects. Among them was St. John the Evangelist, Long Green Valley, in Hydes.
Taneyhill is among its parish leaders on Haiti outreach. A retired dentist, he made countless trips there. With the help of his professional network, he converted unused space at The Good Samaritans School into what he described as “the best dental clinic on the island.”
“My colleagues and I are incredibly blessed to have been asked to join Deacon Mortel for a small part of his journey,” Taneyhill said.
Deacon Mortel formally retired as director of the archdiocesan Missions Office in 2017, but continued to facilitate communications between parishes in Haiti and the U.S. By 2019, political unrest and general lawlessness had made larger missions to Haiti too dangerous to undertake.
In more peaceful times, from 2003 to 2018, hundreds of youths had participated in summer camps in St. Marc, bedding down at night in The Good Samaritans School and interacting during the day with its children on their vacations.
More than 80 of those students came from Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn. That outreach was organized by Pat Brady, who was already volunteering for Haiti in 2004, when he began teaching religion at Spalding.
“I heard Deacon Mortel speak about Haiti at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (in Crofton),” said Brady, a parishioner of Our Lady of the Fields in Millersville. “We went to dinner afterward. He was one of those people, after 10 minutes, you felt you had known him for 20 years.
“When the summer outreach began at Spalding, he came to school to speak with the parents, who were very nervous. Almost every one said, ‘We trust you.’ The students’ favorite memories were the nights they gathered in Deacon Mortel’s living room, where he would sit in his rocking chair and talk about life.”
Deacon Mortel had been a member of the Commission on Social Doctrine in the Harrisburg Diocese and was on the staff of his home parish, St. Joan of Arc in Hershey, one of three in that diocese to join the Baltimore Haiti Project.
Pat Mooney, a Hershey parishioner and volunteer with Deacon Mortel’s foundation, said his ministry was not limited to Haiti.
“Once you meet Deacon Mortel,” she said, “you meet Haiti, but he also developed POP, our parish outreach program. It encompassed a food bank at a parish in Harrisburg, and a mission in Kentucky.
“He constantly told us, ‘We’re all called through the Gospel, to go and do.’ Once you met him, you could not say no. He communicated so well with people, sometimes you could forget that this was a great man you were with.”
Deacon Mortel took Communion to the sick and helped many to navigate serious illnesses, including Mooney’s late husband, Mark.
Deacon Mortel was the father of four and grandfather of seven. In addition to his numerous professional distinctions, he had been on the board of directors of Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Boston.
A prayer service followed by a visitation will begin at 5 p.m. on May 1, with an 11 a.m. funeral Mass to be offered by Harrisburg Bishop Ronald Gainer on May 2 Both will be held at St. Joan of Arc in Hershey.
The funeral Mass will be livestreamed at www.stjoanhershey.org. In lieu of flowers, the family prefers memorial contributions be made to the Mortel High Hopes for Haiti Foundation, P.O. Box 405, Hershey, PA 17033 or www.highhopesforhaiti.org.
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