Margaret Penicaud “” a force for Haiti

Margaret Mayhew Penicaud — generous, tenacious, and always positive — has been a true friend to Haiti and countless people there. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

When Margaret Penicaud met a Haitian nun named Sister Monique 13 years ago, she got an immediate sense that Haiti would be part of her future. “I said, ‘it’s your mission, girl, to go down there,'” she said late last week. “I just felt that it was my faith walk, my faith journey.” She has worked tirelessly to help Haiti ever since.

On Friday, July 16, the Martha’s Vineyard Fish Farm for Haiti Project, which Ms. Penicaud founded and continues to direct, will hold a fundraiser for Haiti at the Ag Hall in West Tisbury from 5 to 10 pm. Called the Summer Clambake Haiti Benefit, wine and hors d’oeuvres and a pre-dinner auction will highlight the first part of the evening. A lobster dinner, music, and dancing will be offered to those who stay the entire dinner. All proceeds from the event go to Haiti.

One of five children of the late Benjamin Mayhew, a commercial fisherman and the Vineyard’s state representative during the 1960s, Ms. Penicaud grew up in Chilmark. Her three brothers — Skip, Greg, and Jonathan — have all worked in the fishing industry, as has her husband, Dominique.

Church was an integral part of her upbringing, and it has remained that way. After spending her senior year of high school in France, where her sister, Eileen, was living at the time, she moved on to Loretto Heights, a Catholic women’s college in Denver, where she majored in French.

The Penicauds met by chance at Kennedy Airport in New York in 1968. Married a year later, they lived in France for seven years before moving back to the Vineyard in 1976. Three of their seven children were born in France.

Ms. Penicaud first traveled to Haiti in January 1998, under the auspices of the Catholic Relief Services (CRS). Her hosts were the Daughters of Mary Queen Immaculate, a teaching order of nuns that now runs ten schools — primary, secondary, and training — in Haiti, along with a medical clinic in Roche a Bateau on the southwest coast.

Before she left for Haiti, Ms. Penicaud organized a Peacecraft Sale on the Vineyard in December 1997. The profits from the sale of handmade fair-trade crafts from around the world would be her first tangible donation to Haiti. When she arrived there, she had no concrete plan, but she did have her faith. “I’d know when I got there what I’d do with the money,” she said.

“I had an invitation from CRS to tour Haiti in a jeep, which I thought would be cool,” Ms. Penicaud said. “But when I got there and saw the poverty, I was just blown away.” She described garbage that was never picked up, among many other signs of chronic dysfunction, “things that I wasn’t used to, living on Martha’s Vineyard.”

As overwhelming as it was, Ms. Penicaud decided to commit herself to improving the lives of people there. But how? “I was kneeling in prayer, asking God what can I do here, and the idea of fish farming came to me,” she said.

Ms. Penicaud promptly canceled her CRS tour and was introduced the same day to Valentine Abé, an Ivory Coast native with a Phd in aquaculture from Auburn University; he had married a Haitian and moved there to raise fish and put people to work. Now working for the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture, Mr. Abé was one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for 2010, an honor for which he was nominated by Bill Clinton. Mr. Clinton also made Time’s list this year, as a “global humanitarian — and Haiti’s best friend.” Ms. Penicaud has tried to get an invitation to the clambake for the former president.

Without looking back, Ms.Penicaud started to raise money on Martha’s Vineyard. She traveled to Haiti frequently, carrying funds, materials, and an indomitable spirit. On return trips, she brought back Haitian folk art to sell, including quilts for PeaceQuilts, a cooperative of seamstresses started by Jean Staples of Edgartown. “We brought back lovely table cloths at first, but they didn’t sell well,” Ms. Penicaud said. “But with the quilts, we had an art form.”

On undeveloped land belonging to the Daughters of Mary Queen Immaculate in Lilavois, a small town east of Port au Prince, the Martha’s Vineyard Fish Farm for Haiti Project started to take shape. Since 1998, funds raised by the project have helped drill a well; excavate five ponds to raise and harvest tilapia, a hardy and fast-growing fresh water fish; construct a school for 130 students; establish vegetable gardens; build a chicken coop and start producing poultry; and establish PeaceQuilts.

Damage from the devastating earthquake in January was minimal at the fish farm and school, although a few students have not yet returned to school.

On her most recent mission to Haiti, in May, Ms. Penicaud was joined by Dr. Bruce Stelle and Carolyn Stoeber, both of Edgartown. “Our suitcases were packed with tents, medical supplies, children’s clothing, adult tee-shirts, and batting for the women working at PeaceQuilts,” Ms. Penicaud wrote.

Dr. Stelle, an emergency room physician, is helping to get the clinic in Roche a Bateau running again. Water has been restored, but there is no electricity and no medical supplies or equipment.

“There are not even any exam gloves,” he said. “The first step is to get a solar system up, to power the building.” He has started to collect used medical equipment, principally from Dr. Jason Lew of Oak Bluffs, who recently closed down his practice, and the local Rotary Club and the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital may help out as well.

Dr. Stelle has high praise for Ms. Penicaud’s effort in Haiti. “It’s quite amazing what she’s been able to do, considering the obstacles,” he said. “There is so much poverty, so much need, it’s almost overwhelming.” However, he added, “I have to admit: I’m sort of hooked. The people there are beyond appreciative, and I’ve learned a lot being down there.”

While Dr. Stelle is taking a long view, Ms. Stoeber is focused on next Friday night in West Tisbury. As organizer of the Summer Clambake Haiti Benefit, she is busy with last-minute details for the fundraiser. Still, she took a minute earlier this week to consider Ms. Penicaud and her work in Haiti.

“Margaret is fortunate to have a fantastic group there that she is working with,” Ms. Stoeber said. “They are deeply connected to the communities they work in, and they use the resources that Margaret provides, efficiently and effectively. Margaret and her organization are flexible enough, inclusive enough, to welcome fresh ideas, to foster and nurture them, and to support them when they spin off on their own, like Jean Staples’ PeaceQuilts program.”

A determined and optimistic advocate for Haiti, Ms. Penicaud is not shy about asking people to join her on a mission to Haiti, or to get involved at home, in any way they feel comfortable. She knows that going to Haiti can be daunting for some people. “We encourage everyone who comes to make a pilgrimage from the head to the heart. The program is open to everybody, of any denomination, to work in solidarity — anyone who feels they have a heart to help Haiti.”

Summer Clambake Haiti Auction, Friday, July 16. Appetizers and auction only, 5 to 7 pm, $30. Full evening tickets, $125. Tickets are available online at or in person at the PeaceCraft booth at the Artisans Fair in West Tisbury, EduComp in Vineyard Haven, Vintage Jewelry in Edgartown, Good Ship Lollipop in Oak Bluffs, and The Bite in Menemsha.

For more information, contact Carolyn Stoeber, clambake coordinator, at 508-627-2420, or Magaret Penicaud at 508-693-0368. For information on the M.V. Fish Farm for Haiti Project, visit