Released 19 August 2011
August 19, 2011 – The Road
Not Traveled: One officer’s trailblazing journey with The Salvation Army
Some 42 years ago, 33 year-old Rosemarie Häfeli
arrived in Port-au-prince, Haiti ready to fulfill God’s plan for her
life. Marching orders in hand, she was greeted by Major Alfred Townsend, the
Divisional Secretary, and asked to see the dispensary she had been appointed to
in a place called Fond-des-Nègres. "Take it easy," was his response.
A Lieutenant in The Salvation Army for three years,
Häfeli seemingly waited until the last possible minute to become an
officer -the cut off age for training was 30 at that time. But God had spoken
to her heart so strongly about Haiti when she was only 14 that she spent the
next 16 years working toward that goal. Officership was the last piece of the
puzzle. "I never wanted to be an officer," she said. "I wanted to be a
volunteer, but The Salvation Army said they weren’t sending volunteers to
Haiti; I would have to be an officer."
Dr. Kuntz, an Envoy of The Salvation Army Switzerland
Territory, had recently visited the work in Haiti and planned to give a
Saturday afternoon film presentation at the corps Major Häfeli attended.
"I wasn’t allowed to go to the Army,” she said. She often told lies
to get out of the house. "I don’t know what lie I told, but I told
something so I could go." The film featured pictures of the Army in Delmas 2,
"I can still see it," she said. When Dr. Kuntz finished he said, "So children,
when you are grownups, you become something and go and help these people." That
was Major Häfeli’s call. She decided not to lie about her
involvement with the Army anymore and shared her plan with her family. "When I
grow up, I’m going to be a nurse and go to Haiti," she said. "[My
stepmother] told me I was crazy."
was determined to be the best nurse she
could. She left home to attend nursing school and specialized in gynecology.
She then spent ten years working in a hospital before entering training and
serving The Salvation Army in Switz4erland for three years before being
appointed to Bethel Clinic in Fond-des-Nègres, Haiti. Her family was not
accepting of her decisions but, "I had to do what the Lord asked me to do," she
Major Häfeli arrived in Port-au-prince at 9
Sunday, October 11, 1969, ready to carry out the Lord’s plans; or so she
thought. The appointment she was supposed to take was no longer vacant. When
she asked Major Townsend, who she affectionately refers to as "Mr. Take It
Easy," what she was to do, he told her she could start a school.
This school, later to become
College Verena, with 100
students and two teachers was set to start the following day. In true Haitian
fashion, Major Häfeli took what she was given and made the best of it. On
October 12, 1969 two classes were held, with 50 students each, in a wooden
shack on the Delmas 2 compound. This was the beginning of Major
Häfeli’s trailblazing work with the Army in Haiti.
Over the next 31 years, Major Häfeli would establish
40 schools throughout the country, including both College Verena and Fort
National schools in the Delmas 2 area. She was also responsible for
establishing the Army’s 30-year relationship with Kindernothilfe (KNH) as
sponsors of College Verena and La Maison du Bonheur children’s home.
I always felt it [wasn’t]
enough," she said. "The
need is so big that you feel helpless." But her efforts were quite the
contrary. So much so that President Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier conferred
Major Häfeli with the title of Chevalier for her outstanding work in
Haiti. Chevalier is a title given to few foreigners, which put her in a
category with Mother Theresa, who also received the honor. The work that Major
Häfeli began was not only recognized by the president of the country at
the time, but continues to have a profound impact on the lives of children and
Major Häfeli returned to
Port-au-prince in August
2011, for the first time after the earthquake. She was met with an overwhelming
reception and a few tears by many former students and friends on the
Army’s Delmas 2 compound. She was able to see the progress that was made
with the demolition and temporary classrooms and Major Jean Volet, fellow Swiss
officer and HRD Construction Manager, reviewed the plans for the new College
Verena buildings with her.
The last of the original buildings will soon be gone,
because of the hard work Major Häfeli put into its humble beginnings,
College Verena will continue to have a meaningful impact on thousands of
lives. "It’s overwhelming for me to see the progress of The Salvation
Army," she said. "It’s really something."