We have from Adolphe Cabon, the French historian and priest who taught at the
Petit Séminaire Collège Saint Martial in Port-au-Prince from 1895 to 1909 and then became the school’s Principal (1909-1919), a most detailed account of the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church in Haiti. His “Notes sur l’Histoire religieuse d’Haiti de 1789 a 1860” covers the period from the colonial era through the creation of the first Black republic in 1804, up to the 1860 Concordat. The Concordat, or accord, negotiated over several months, formalized relations between the Haitian state and the Vatican and set the terms of association for the Church in Haiti. For the period, 1860 to 1885, Father Cabon uses his 626-page biography of the second Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Mgr Alexis Jean-Marie Gilloux, to relate in detail, the difficult early years of the official Church in Haiti.
Navigating a perilous political environment, Mgr Guilloux obtained from the Haitian legislature and President Lysius Salomon, a law providing adequate space for a new cathedral adjacent to the old church that had been consecrated as the “Cathédrale Métropolitaine.” Over the previous decade, a consensus emerged that a cathedral was needed worthy of the nation’s Capital. In 1881, on his last visit to his native Brittany, the Archbishop retained the services of the well regarded architect, André Michel Ménard, of Nantes. Ménard drew a structure with a footprint of 84 meters in length and 29 meters in width with the transept extending 49 meters across. The law of October 13, 1882, and a site visit by the President and the archbishop on January 4, 1883, settled the first land grant. Construction on Notre Dame began in 1883.
An outpouring of interest in the project from amongst the population raised enough monies for foundation work to begin under the direction of Raymond Laforesterie, the government’s engineer. But works barely started were interrupted due to insufficient funds and the passing in 1885, of Mgr. Gilloux. Over the next 18 years occasional efforts made to resume work proved unsuccessful. With the onset of the centenary celebration of the nation’s independence the desire to build something important on a large scale prompted calls for a resumption of the Cathedral’s construction.
Georges Corvington’s 1978 volume, La Cathédrale de Port-au-Prince; Histoire d’une Construction, is an indispensable resource for following the construction from that point on. Corvington recalls that the Belgian engineering firm “Perraud et Dumas” (perhaps Dumas & Perraud) was selected. It guaranteed to deliver a project in 5 years, for $300,000 payable at $60,000 per year. Paul Perraud relocated to Port-au-Prince with two Belgian foremen. Haitian architects and builders Louis Roy and Leon Mathon were retained by Archbishop Mgr Conan, with the consent of the government, as prime contractors and managers of a large labor force. Financing for the construction would come mainly from the Haitian state.
Over the next 10 years the process of erecting a cathedral proceeded in fits and starts. The Dumas & Perraud technique to make walls entirely of cast concrete was deemed an effective and affordable solution. It would be the first building of its type in Haiti and was one of the early structures anywhere of that size, using the technology recently patented in Belgium. To carry-out the task the firm introduced equipment never before seen in the country. A sand crusher powered with steam and concrete mixers, as well as molds and presses to fabricate “artificial stone” were put in operation.
In 1914 as the structure was nearly finished, conflicts over costs and a checklist of items to be completed and delivered escalated. There were incessant disputes over money and performance between the government and the contractors. It is at that point that Archbishop Conan settled with Paul Perraud who then left the country. The Church took charge of the construction making good progress with additional funds provided by the government. These monies were either from levies on export of coffee or additions to the national debt. The Church also appealed to individual Haitian contributors. The purchase of the bells, the altar, the organ, furnishings, and stained glass was assured by important contributions from prominent local families.
From early on, however, repairs and rework became necessary. The slate roof tended to come apart, showering passersby with missiles. Corvington documents other similar problems that required immediate corrective measures. The bells were recast twice before their tonality proved acceptable. And when it came time to consecrate the Cathedral, the structure failed its liturgical review. It took another fourteen years of fix-ups to permit the formal consecration in 1928.
In 1968 a restoration lasting nearly a decade was undertaken of the building’s interior and exterior. Yet on the eve of the earthquake of January 12, 2010, clear signs of disrepair and structural damage were again apparent.
None of this diminishes the great affection Haitians accorded the edifice. Beloved from the moment its glorious and elegant form became apparent, it remained a monument to the possible. Modest and stately religious ceremonies within its grand interior were always special occasions. At the time of its destruction, the Cathedral Notre Dame de l’Assomption along with the National Palace and the Iron Market was the singular most identifiable and iconic structure in active use in Haiti.