Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
At a Mass that included a marriage blessing, baptisms and first  Communions, Violette Nyandwi and Faustin Bizimana stand with five of their  children — Chanelle, Peace, Liliane, Delphin and Jean Pierre.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
At a Mass that included a marriage blessing, baptisms and first Communions, Violette Nyandwi and Faustin Bizimana stand with five of their children — Chanelle, Peace, Liliane, Delphin and Jean Pierre.
For a moment, the congregation's focus was on a girl named Peace.

Peace Irakoze, 11 and slim, leaned forward in her white dress to have the waters of baptism poured over her head; she stood tall as her brow was anointed with holy oil. Peace was one of five siblings initiated into Catholicism May 22 at St. Ignatius Church in Southeast Portland. The Mass that day included her parents' marriage blessing.

Faustin Bizimana and Violette Nyandwi, parents of seven and refugees from the small central African nation of Burundi, exchanged vows and then smiled as worshipers applauded, along with a few women who ululated joyfully.

For the couple and their children, the bounty of sacraments brought on a profound feeling of, well, peace.

Faustin, 41, supports his family by washing dishes during the swing shift at the University of Portland dining hall.

His father was murdered in 1972 during the slaughter of Hutus by the Tutsi-dominated Burundian Army. Young Faustin, then 3, went with his mother to a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That is where he grew up and where he met Violette, the daughter of other Burundian refugees.

The two fell in love and had their first child in 1993, the same year a second genocide erupted in Burundi and neighboring Rwanda. This time, Hutus slayed many Tutsis. There were atrocities on both sides.

By 1996, when Faustin and Violette were expecting a third child, the strife had spread to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Hutu and Tutsi militias were fighting brutally, sometimes using refugee camps as bases.

The couple fled east with their children to a camp in Tanzania. While safer than their last residence, Mtabila camp was prone to crime and violence. While Faustin made a living as a fisherman and tending a garden, he and Violette dreamed of the United States.

In 2008, after years of trying, they were accepted and made the voyage. Throughout the ordeals — warfare, camp life and interoceanic immigration — the family relied on their Catholic faith. The children still pray upon waking, before meals and when they go to bed.

When they landed in Portland, other refugees told them about St. Ignatius, already home to many African families.

"The people from the church help us with many things," says Violette, 38.

After the baptism/wedding Mass, Faustin and Violette invited everyone for a meal at their five-bedroom apartment in North Portland's New Columbia development. The complex includes many African refugees, some of whom have become friends of the family.

The two older children, Florence and Aline, were born in Congo, while Jean Pierre, Liliane, Peace, Chanelle and 4-year-old Delpin were born in Tanzania. Violette is expecting the couple's eighth child, who will be a U.S. native.

The older girls attend a special women's academy at Jefferson High, while the younger children go to Rosa Parks Elementary. Jean Pierre, 14, attends St. Andrew Nativity, a free middle school run by the Jesuits. Faustin and Violette would like all the children to be able to attend Catholic school, but tuition is out of reach.

Nonetheless, the couple is grateful for what they consider top-rate medical care and good free schools.

"I would like to help all my children to be in church activities and I'd like to be able to help them with school," says Faustin, laughing, because he's not so sure he's up on the latest U.S. academics. But he is not phased by that challenge, not after what he's been through.  

"Everything," he says with a meaningful pause, "is open for my life and for my whole family."