In the worst days after the earth split and shattered Haiti, Passionist Father Richard Frechette made his way through Port-au-Prince delivering supplies and ministering to the sick, the injured and the dying.
More than 300,000 lives were lost in the 2010 earthquake, 300,000 were injured and 1 million were left homeless. Yet as Father Frechette drove through the dark streets where people lay dead and suffering, he heard something startling: songs in the night.
“They were a broken, battered people singing,” he said. “By the thousands. By the tens of thousands. Melodious laments that can only be born of faith, rich hymns begging for help and final victory from God that can only be born of hope, tender songs of praise of God that can only be born of love.”
The people of Haiti, he said, give enormous witness to the values of faith and life in the face of such huge obstacles. They live with the relentless tragedies of poverty, sickness, violence, political and social repression, ignorance and natural disasters. Their courage, strength and the power of their spirit touched him when he arrived there 25 years ago, and made him want to stay.
When he saw their overwhelming medical needs, he returned to the United States to attend medical school and then went back to Haiti as a licensed physician.
|Father Rick Frechette celebrates Mass in Haiti. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Orphans
Father Frechette, 59, wears many hats in the island country.
He is the founder and director of St. Helene Orphanage, and founded St. Damien’s Hospital, Haiti’s most advanced pediatric medical facility. It provides long-term care for hundreds of critically ill children and outpatient services for over 20,000 children and adults annually.
Frechette organizes and leads teams who recover and bury the bodies of the sick who die alone and abandoned, and he works alongside Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity who care for the sick and destitute dying.
Although he is a doctor, that’s not the title he normally hears.
“Everybody calls me father,” he said.
Some people also call him the Mother Teresa of Haiti.
“That’s flattering, but this is nothing like being Mother Teresa,” he told OSV on a recent visit to the United States. “I’m more like a truck driver than a Mother Teresa. My personality is rough, and I have to be aggressive to get things done.”
Father Frechette was ordained in the Congregation of the Passion in 1979 and was doing parish work in 1983 when he was sent to Mexico City. His intentions were to learn Spanish so that he could work with Cuban refugees in New York City.
Then he met Father Bill Wasson, founder of the orphanages of Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos (Our Little Brothers and Sisters), and got permission from the Passionists to work with him.
“The families were really being destroyed by poverty, violence, accidents and natural disasters,” he said. “One of the biggest challenges was helping the orphans to adapt to community living, as opposed to a nuclear family.”
He went to Honduras in 1984 and founded an orphanage in the country that was worse off than Mexico. Poverty was rampant, and Honduras was surrounded by countries engaged in civil wars.
He went to Haiti in 1987 and it was worse than Honduras and Mexico, he said.
Mothers were dying, many from AIDS, and the Sisters of Charity were taking care of the surviving children. Father Frechette established an orphanage and also saw the critical need for more medical care.
“The difficulties in Haiti were relentless and that led to a brain drain,” he said. “Many doctors and nurses left and went to the United States, Canada and Europe. In the United States, there is one doctor for every 500 people. In Haiti, there is one per 15,000.”
Licensed to serve
Father Frechette studied at the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine and returned to Haiti in 1999 as a licensed general practitioner.
|Father Rick Frechette receives his honorary doctorate. Courtesy of St. Vincent College
He currently serves as medical director of Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos International and oversees the medical needs of children in nine underdeveloped countries. NPH is supported by Friends of the Orphans.
“I do more emergency medicine and infectious diseases,” he said. “There is coma from malaria and diabetes, severe asthma from all the dust, perforated intestines from typhoid, shortness of breath from tuberculosis, gunshot injuries from crime and heart failure.”
He staffs one of three hospitals in the city and works on the streets with teams who are trained for medical response. In the past 16 months, more than 25,000 people were treated for cholera at their hospital alone, and each patient requires about 20 liters of intravenous fluids, at $2.50 per liter.
“There’s an enormous shortage of IV fluids and without help, there’s a 50 percent mortality rate,” Father Frechette said. “And we’re ramping up again for cholera.”
Funds are short because many donors are hesitating to support work in Haiti after the publicized mishandling of donations for earthquake relief.
“People have to know and trust an organization, and find out who is really doing good work,” he said.
Stories of survival
Many examples of courage and good endings emerged from the tragedy, Father Frechette said. A baby escaped death in a flood when his grandmother climbed a tree and set him afloat in a basket before she drowned. He was found down river and taken to the orphanage. His name is Moses, and he is now 6.
Weeks ago, a young man named Lucien, his body all twisted, told Father Frechette that he and his brother were buried in the earthquake, and his brother died. Three days later, rescuers broke through the rubble and Lucien was so injured that he was thought to be dead. He was thrown on top of the mile-long heap of corpses. When bulldozers came to deliver the dead to a massive common grave, Lucien found enough strength to lift his shattered leg. He was pulled from the piles of the dead and dragged to the tents of the half-dead.
“What art of living do the Haitian people know? It is not a secret,” Father Frechette said. “It is that by God’s grace, we can become perfected rather than destroyed.”
He emphasized the power of faith in overcoming tragic circumstances.
“It is the power of the risen Christ, present in any heart that will make room for him. It is the inner faith that bends the floodwaters of tragedy into life-giving rivers of life,” Father Frechette said, “It is what can make any ordinary person great, even heroic. It is what can help us get up over and over again, stronger and more determined. It is resurrection, the hidden power of the soul, the gift of the Risen Lord.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.