Deacon Mortel, who inspired many to help his homeland of Haiti, dies at 88

Deacon Rodrigue Mortel (left) baptizes a child in 2010 in his hometown of Saint-Marc, Haiti. (Paul McMullen/CR File)

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 native country of Haiti and led hundreds of Catholic high school student on a summer mission, died April 22 at his home in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Deacon Mortel, 88, has led a life worth examining.

As a child, he experienced homelessness in the poorest country 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 life of faith, Deacon Mortel has earned the trust of leaders throughout the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Some of his parishes continue to help churches in the Diocese of Gonaives, continuing the work of what began as the Baltimore Haiti Project. The archdiocese was among the benefactors who helped him build a primary and secondary school in his hometown of Saint-Marc, about 80 km north of the capital Port-au-Prince.

The Mortal Deacon’s drive to educate, first himself, then others, has never waned. At 76, when most of his peers had long slowed down, he led a pilgrimage to his hometown, months after an earthquake ravaged Haiti, to baptize a court full of children of the Catholic faith.

“When you are baptized, you must be king, priest, prophet, Deacon Mortel told the Catholic Review in 2010. “What you learn you must give to someone else.”

Humble beginning

Deacon Rodrigue Mortel speaks with the Catholic Review during a 2008 interview in his office at the Catholic Center in Baltimore. (Owen Sweeney III/CR file)

Deacon Mortel, whose many honors included receiving the Horatio Alger Prize, which honors stories from poverty to riches, was the author of three books, covering his journey from poverty to philanthropy, which ranged from Mortel High Hopes for Haiti Foundation to him and his wife, Cécile, gave two visiting scholar lectures at Penn State University.

In his 2000 autobiography, “I’m from Haiti,” Deacon Mortel recounted a pivotal moment in his childhood, his family’s expulsion from his home when he was 10. The book recounted his mother’s complaint: “If I had an education, this never happened.”

According to a biography provided by his family, Deacon Mortel graduated from medical school in 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, chairman of the board 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 he became a world famous obstetrician-gynecologist.

Deacon Mortel told the journal in 2010 that he found his training 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, and in 1972 joined the faculty of Penn State University College of Medicine in Hershey, becoming a full professor. Rooting there led to his relationship with the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

‘True missionary’

Deacon Rodrigue Mortel (right) greets Cardinal William H. Keeler at the start of the Gala of Hope at the Marriott Hunt Valley Inn October 21, 2006. (Owen Sweeney III/CR file)

As an altar boy at Saint-Marc, Deacon Mortel had considered the priesthood. In south-central Pennsylvania, he forged 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 borders.

He entered the permanent diaconate formation program in 1998, studied at St. Mary’s Seminary and University at Roland Park, and was ordained permanent deacon for the Diocese of Gonaïves on July 5, 2001, at St. Marc.

“It was a spectacular day,” said Daniel Medinger, who covered the liturgy as editor/associate editor of The Review. “A lot of people think Haiti is a horrible place, but it was a beautiful day and the church was packed. You could see the pride the people of Saint-Marc had in Deacon Mortel.

“As director of missions, he was a true missionary. His mission was to educate children. He believed they were the future of Haiti.

Founded in 1997, the Mortel Family Foundation was responsible for the operating costs of The Good Samaritans School (“The Good Samaritans”), an elementary school that opened in 2001.

Around the corner from his home in St. Mark, he educated and nurtured over 9,000 children, many of whom were outcasts. In 2011, Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, then Archbishop of Baltimore, dedicated James M. Stine High School, St. Mark’s. It has enrolled over 4,800 students.

Deacon Rodrigue Mortel pauses under the Traveler’s Tree in the courtyard of the Good Samaritans School in his hometown of Saint-Marc, Haiti, in 2010. The school continues to house students ready for the high school. (Paul McMullen/CR File)

Another 1,100 children went through a kindergarten in St. Mark’s, where the Deacon Mortel Foundation also sponsors adult education. The Cardinal Keeler Center, a trade school, is to the north, in the city of Gonaïves.

Deacon Mortel had boundless energy, a curiosity for those he met, an infectious laugh and, when needed, the seriousness befitting the dire circumstances in Haiti.

“He found a way to build one of the best elementary schools in Haiti, one that only admits children who otherwise wouldn’t attend any school,” Taneyhill said. “Then he opened the best high school in Haiti and a solid kindergarten. He made the money appear, he pushed the construction forward. He just did.

Gospel Driven

After his ordination, which coincided with his retirement from medical practice, and aware that the Harrisburg Diocese had stricter travel policies,

Deacon Mortel began exploring parish partnerships between the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Diocese of Gonaives.

The Baltimore Haiti project was launched in 2001 and has led dozens of parishes to support nearly 50 parish schools and feed 23,000 children daily, most of them in rural areas.

Some parishes have taken their sponsorship to the limit, sending, in addition to financial assistance, engineering and logistics expertise to help their sister parishes with construction projects. Among them was St. John the Evangelist, Long Green Valley, Hydes.

Taneyhill is among his parish leaders on outreach in Haiti. 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 fortunate to have been invited to join Deacon Mortel for a small part of his journey,” Taneyhill said.

Deacon Mortel officially retired as director of the archdiocesan missions office in 2017, but continued to facilitate communications between parishes in Haiti and the United States. By 2019, political unrest and general anarchy had made larger missions in Haiti too dangerous to undertake.

In more peaceful times, from 2003 to 2018, hundreds of young people had attended summer camps in Saint-Marc, sleeping at night at The Good Samaritans school and interacting with its children during the day while on vacation.

Deacon Rodrigue Mortel observes progress at James M. Stine College during an April 2010 visit to Saint-Marc, Haiti. The director of the archdiocesan missions office oversaw the planning and supervised the construction of the urgent project. (Paul McMullen/CR File

More than 80 of these pupils came from Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn. This sensitization was organized by Pat Brady, who was already a volunteer for Haiti in 2004, when he began teaching religion in Spalding.

“I heard Deacon Mortel talking about Haiti at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (in Crofton),” said Brady, a parishioner at Notre Dame des Champs in Millersville. “We went to dinner afterwards. He was one of those people, after 10 minutes you felt like you had known him for 20 years.

“When the summer outreach started at Spalding, he came to the school to speak with the parents, who were very nervous. Almost everyone said, “We trust you. The students’ favorite memories were of the nights when they gathered in Mortal Deacon’s living room, where he would sit in his rocking chair and talk about life.

Deacon Mortel had served as a member of the Commission on Social Doctrine in the Diocese of Harrisburg and was on staff at his home parish, St. Joan of Arc in Hershey, one of three from that diocese to join the Baltimore Haiti Project. .

Pat Mooney, a Hershey parishioner and volunteer with the Deacon Mortel Foundation, said his ministry is not limited to Haiti.

“Once you meet Deacon Mortel, she says, you meet Haiti, but he also developed POP, our parish outreach program. It included a food bank in a parish in Harrisburg and a mission in Kentucky.

“He was constantly telling us, ‘We are all called by the Gospel, to go and To do.‘ Once you met him, you couldn’t say no. He communicated so well with people, sometimes you could forget he was a great man you were with.

Deacon Mortel brought communion to the sick and helped many through serious illnesses, including Mooney’s late husband, Mark.

Deacon Mortel was the father of four children and grandfather of seven. In addition to his many professional honors, he had served on the board of trustees of the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Boston.

This article will be updated with funeral arrangements.

Also see:

A school grows in Haiti: Deacon Mortel, 76, continues to energize his hometown

Deacon Mortel outlines needs in Haiti

Hershey’s Man

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