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.”
Major Häfeli 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 Switzerland 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 said.
Major Häfeli arrived in Port-au-prince at 9 a.m. on 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 adults alike.
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, but 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.”