Fire destroys historic monument and tourist attraction in Haiti

A historic church inside Haiti’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, a symbol of Haitian identity, lay in ruins on Monday after an early morning fire destroyed its unusual wooden dome and much of it. of its circular interior.

Built after the Haitian Revolution in 1809, according to its priest, the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Milot is among three emblematic structures inside the National historic park in northern Haiti outside the city of Cap-Haitien. The park encompasses the Sans-Souci Palace, of which the Roman Catholic Church is part; the fortified site of Ramiers; and the Citadel Henri, the fortress on top of a mountain equipped with hundreds of cannons.

In happier times, the inhabitants of Milot leave the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception after mass. Built after the Haitian Revolution, the historic monument lost its dome-shaped room and interior to a fire on Monday, April 13, 2020. Jean Cyril Pressoir

Symbolizing Haitian freedom, the monuments were built by King Henri Christophe, the self-proclaimed ruler of Haiti who ruled a divided nation after the death of founding father and revolutionary hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Twelve years after the slaves launched a revolt against their French colonial masters in the hills of northern Haiti on August 22, 1791, Dessalines declared the country free from French rule on January 1, 1804.

His death on October 17, 1806, however, led to a divided country. On February 17, 1807, Christophe, war general of Dessalines, became president of the State of Haiti, as he named the northern region. Alexandre petion, another war hero, ruled the South.

In the north, Christophe sought to fortify the country’s regained freedom through military engineering designed to protect the new nation from future French attacks. While Ramiers was to serve as bunkers, Sans-Souci was his residence and the administrative center of power after declaring himself king in 1811. Prior to the town of Milot, it was indeed the capital of Christophe’s northern kingdom, and the unusual church, with a circular body and domed roof, was his.

The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Milot is among three iconic structures inside the National Historical Park of Northern Haiti, outside the city of Cap-Haitien. It is part of the Sans-Souci Palace, built by King Henri Christophe. The ruins of the palace can be seen in this photo taken before a fire on April 13 that ravaged the unusual domed roof of the church. Jean Cyril Press

Following the Haiti earthquake of 1842 that destroyed much of the north, the church was the only part of Sans-Souci to be rebuilt, getting a new roof nearly a century later.

“This church is Milot’s pride. It is the pride of the North. It is the pride of Haiti ”, declared the parish priest, Father Alain Prophète. “I am in shock.”

Prophet and another priest, Father Delince Exalus, who spoke with the Miami Herald, said an investigation was underway to determine the cause of the fire, which started at the rear of the structure. Both said it took ill-equipped firefighters an hour to arrive from neighboring Cap-Haitien, which should not have taken more than 30 minutes at that time of day.

“They didn’t arrive until 3 am and by that time the whole roof had already burned down,” Exalus said.

Prophet said he learned of the fire when he was awakened from his sleep shortly before 2 a.m. on Monday. Arrived in front of the blue and white building of the church, he saw the fire and the population of Milot desperately trying to put it out.

“They fought and fought; some were even injured, ”said Prophet. “As we speak, we do not have a church. … Only the walls are standing.

The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Milot is among three iconic structures inside the National Historical Park of Northern Haiti, outside the city of Cap-Haitien. Built after the Haitian Revolution, it lost its unusual wooden dome roof on Monday, April 13 in a fire. Courtesy of Father Alain Prophète

In an open letter to the Haitian government, members of the business community and advocates of northern history called on the government to prioritize historic sites. They noted that over the weekend the Citadel was also vandalized. They denounce the fact that the very year of the 200th anniversary of Christophe’s death in 1820, the monuments he built are almost abandoned.

“This explains why the Sans-Souci Palace cannot have 24/7 police officers to ensure the security of the premises,” the letter said. “Stop this denial of our history as a people! Only these monuments remain testimonies of our history of struggles, suffering and hope.

The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Milot is among three iconic structures inside the National Historical Park of Northern Haiti, outside the city of Cap-Haitien. Built after the Haitian Revolution, it stands out for its circular structure and unusual domed roof. Jean Cyril Press

Patrick Delatour, a former Haiti tourism minister and architect who has studied the church since the 1970s, said he and a team plan to inspect the structure later this week to see what is salvageable.

After the roof collapsed in the Haiti earthquake in 1842, it was rebuilt by President Sténio Vincent after the end of the 19-year American occupation of Haiti in 1934.

“Immediately after the American occupation, there was a whole program under President Vincent to rebuild the historical memory of the Haitian people,” said Delatour. “There was therefore a whole restoration program for the Citadel, the Palace of San Souci … and in this context the chapel was rebuilt by Haitian engineers from American studies.

Recently, the roof has been repaired again, said Prophet, describing that when it rained during Mass, not only did the water seep in, but one could “look the eyes and see the sky”. He hopes the church, which is also a tourist attraction for the city, is not completely lost.

Children from the town of Milot, in northern Haiti, play on the lawn of the Sans-Souci Palace overlooking the wooden dome of the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Built after the Haitian Revolution, the church was destroyed in a fire on Monday, April 13, after its roof caught fire. Jean Cyril Press

Delatour, who was recently part of the group involved in selecting the next designers for the National Palace, which was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake, noted that this year is not only the bicentenary of Christophe’s death, but the 350th anniversary of the creation of the city of Cap-Haitien.

“It’s a disaster,” Delatour said of the blaze. “But it is also an opportunity for the Haitian government to take the leadership in the reconstruction of the country through the process of reconstruction of two major symbols of Haitian identity: the chapel of Sans-Souci and the National Palace.

This story was originally published 13 April 2020 18:21.

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, she received a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.

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