Catherine Savell was born in the little town of Gif sur Yvette, about 45 minutes on a good day, from the Eiffel Tower. When she was eight, her mother packed up Catherine and her three siblings to join their father in Addis-Abeba, Ethiopia. The cargo ship on which they sailed had eight children among its 12 passengers. The crew built a makeshift pool on board for the children, and the captain taught Catherine how to swim as they navigated the Suez Canal.
Catherine’s father worked for the United Nations and her mother taught French in a Jesuit High School. Of course, teaching French was the last thing Catherine ever expected to do with her life. Ironically, she’s spent the past 22 years teaching French at another Jesuit institution, Loyola College – now University - in Maryland.
Life in Ethiopia was rich with fascinating adventures. Catherine recalls camping for weeks on end with no electricity, running water, or facilities for miles. Lake Langano was the sole entertainment. She has childhood memories of lazy days of sunshine, campfires to dream by, and hyenas just beyond their circle of light.
Mme. Savell’s father used to love hunting trips in Simonac. He would outfit the family’s favorite Land Rover with enough provisions to keep them self-sufficient for days. However, the vehicle was constantly breaking down. A scene from the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy” seems to Catherine very reminiscent of her family’s travels.
As an adolescent, Catherine’s constant companions were her horses - Gilbert, Snip, Winnipeg and Priceless. Each one with its unique personality played a role in her coming of age until a devastating fall during a jumping competition. At 18 years old, she was confined to bed for endless months with a back fracture. There were countless visits to doctors and too much youth spent wearing a brace. To get proper medical care and study at the Université de Clermont-Ferrand, Catherine moved back to France, which was as grey and gloomy as her two year recovery.
In 1973, she met a young American. Soon they embarked on a life together in Maine, where the light and cold of the great northeastern United States was discovered. In what became home, Catherine learned to cross-country ski, run a wood stove, and teach French! After Portland, they moved from Buffalo to Columbus, and were blessed first with one baby, then another. Before long, they were off to Maryland where they welcomed the final wonderful gift of a third daughter.
Mme. Savell raised her family in Maryland while shaping her career as a college level French instructor. She has described her professorship as a fascinating, challenging, fun, heart-breaking-at-times but always enriching journey. It is a journey that includes the most recent launch of a service project in Haiti. But Catherine is no stranger to service programs. Her established service learning summer program to the French Caribbean has been successfully running for the past three years.
For Savell however, Haiti is different. There she feels reconnected to her past in Africa. She recognizes the ever-changing uncertainty of daily challenges and is inspired by the people—a welcoming kind people in need, resilient and hopeful in spite of it all. The political oppression is palpable. The threat of earthquakes or hurricanes is constant. Disease is rampant. And the rate of unemployment overwhelming.
Mme. Savell lived and worked in Haiti for six months in 2011. Her program, “Rendezvous: Haiti,” is aimed at empowering and enabling Haitians to develop concrete ways to improve their situation and sustain their own community.