Foundation offers health care, hope to Haitians

The strong belief that every person is a child of God has led a Norwich, Conn., orthodontist to become one of the world’s most respected humanitarians and advocates for those less fortunate.

Rooted in the Faith

Rising from humble circumstances, Dr. Jeremiah J. Lowney Jr. credits the strong faith and values instilled in him by his parents, teachers and the Catholic Church as the source of inspiration for his missionary work that has transformed hundreds of thousands of people living in one of the world’s most impoverished nations.

Lowney, a Knight of Malta, is the founder and president of the Haitian Health Foundation, a Norwich-based organization that provides essential medical care, housing, education, employment and other vital services.

While the 77-year-old philanthropist counts world leaders, including Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, among his friends, Lowney has never forgotten his humble roots. Growing up in Fall River, Mass., in a family with 11 children, he credits the late Msgr. James J. Gerrard, then-pastor of St. Mary’s Cathedral and later auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Fall River, for paying his tuition so that he could attend a Catholic high school and continue to build upon the strong foundation provided by the Sisters of Mercy.

A visit to Haiti

Lowney first visited Haiti in 1982 in a group led by Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, then-bishop of Norwich, Conn., and later bishop of Worcester, Mass., in response to a plea made by Blessed John Paul II for North American Catholics to reach out to their less fortunate brothers and sisters struggling in developing countries.

During that trip, Lowney performed dental care in one of Mother Teresa’s clinics and, after witnessing the dire need for all forms of medical care, subsequently returned every three months to extract infected teeth and provide other dental treatment.

Three years later, after Mother Teresa addressed the lack of health care in rural southwestern Haiti, Lowney and a dedicated corps of benefactors and volunteers constructed an outpatient clinic in Jérémie, and the Haitian Health Foundation (HHF) was born. Soon after, the U.S. Agency for International Development approached the HHF about establishing public health outreach to outlying villages where health care was often inaccessible.

The outreach program initially served 38,000 individuals in 34 villages and now provides medical care for more than 230,000 people in 105 villages.

When the volunteers arrived in Jérémie almost three decades ago, a Missionary Sister of Charity remarked, “No one ever comes here. God must have sent you.”

Bishop Reilly described Lowney as “one of the most remarkable men I have ever met.”

He recalled the orthodontist’s early days where he sometimes extracted teeth on “church steps and in backyards” to accommodate long-suffering people who had walked miles seeking dental care. “He is a true member of the Catholic Faith,” the bishop, who has traveled to Haiti more than 25 times, told Our Sunday Visitor.

Much-needed health care

With the help of benefactors, last year the HHF was able to vaccinate almost 30,000 children, give more than 24,000 doses of vitamin A to children ranging in age from 6 months to 7 years, provide 14,424 prenatal consultations, treat more than 2,500 cases of malaria, offer more than 1,500 diabetes consultations, conduct 31,563 laboratory tests and take more than 2,100 X-rays that were used to diagnose cases.

Lowney said that the foundation provides modern obstetric care, including sonograms and ambulance runs to outlying villages using a foundation-owned vehicle that travels along primitive roads to Jérémie — once unheard of in this remote part of the world. The HHF continues its efforts to support pediatric and maternal health care, two areas of critical concern in Haiti.

Since 1989, members of the Hospital Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, based in Springfield, Ill., have ministered at the Jérémie clinic. The HHF’s other accomplishments in 2012 included the construction of 120 new homes in a slum area in Jérémie, each built at a cost of $5,000, which replaced the squalid hovels that once filled a slum area.

Empowering students

Noting how education proved the key to his own family’s success many decades ago, Lowney told OSV that the HHF also founded St. Pierre School, which provides an education for 900 students in grades K-9. In addition to empowering these children with skills and knowledge, the students also receive a hot meal, which for many is their only food for the day. The foundation also provides an education for 1,500 additional elementary and high school students living in Jérémie and has funded post-secondary education for several academically gifted students to obtain degrees that have enabled them to obtain gainful employment and become community leaders.

In addition, Lowney’s wife Virginia oversees the Save-a-Family Program, which, for an annual donation of $300 per year, helps support a Haitian family. According to Marilyn Lowney, executive director of the HHF and daughter of the founder, a $4 million operating budget, much of which is raised from private donors, supports these initiatives.

Hope for families

Lowney said that the worst poverty that the Haitian people face is lacking the imagination that today is going to be any different than yesterday.

“We bring hope to these people,” he said.

Lowney, who has received four honorary doctoral degrees for his humanitarian efforts, was one of 12 individuals honored by the White House earlier this year with “A Champion of Change Award” for the positive difference he has made in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Msgr. Thaddeus Malanowski, a retired pastor in the Diocese of Norwich, has served on the board of directors of the HHF for 30 years.

Now 91, he attends board meetings and raises funds for the organization.

He recalled that as the board was being formed, the group went on a retreat to Assisi and prayed to St. Francis for guidance.

“We tried to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis,” he told OSV, adding that since he always wanted to be a missionary but God selected him to become a parish priest, working with the HHF for three decades has “been the fulfillment of a dream.”

Brian J. Lowney writes from Rhode Island. For information, call the foundation at 1-860-886-4357 or visit the website at haitianhealthfoundation.org.