Love Among the Ruins
Caring for orphans, ransoming hostages, burying the dead—it’s all in a day’s work for Father Rick Frechette.
Mar 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 23 • By MATT LABASH
In the barbaric cave for the dead
More pictures from Haiti can be viewed here.
Known in Creole as simply ‘mog’
My trembling hand blesses them
May the angels lead you far, far from here
And do so in all haste
You and this throng of dead that surround you
—Father Rick Frechette, from
Haiti: The God of Tough Places, The Lord of Burnt Men
As disaster-chasers go, I’m pretty lousy. It’s ten days since the most catastrophic earthquake in modern history shook Haiti loose from its ever fragile moorings, yet the only disaster I’ve come near is at the Hartford airport in Connecticut. The iron-willed meter maid at the Continental desk informs me that Acts of Nature or God aside, my bag is 50 pounds overweight, and I’m going to have to dump provisions I’m carrying to Haiti.
Wishing to make my flight, I comply, muttering profanities as I hurriedly unload Clif bars, bottled water, and whiskey into a rickety box. As I do this, a band of ten or so curious Haitians watch my struggles, with their leader, an American Catholic priest of the Passionist order, Father Rick Frechette, looking on bemused.
“Everything alright?” he asks.
Though it’s taking me a while to reach the land of newly minted loss (in 40 seconds’ time, at least 230,000 Haitians were killed on January 12, one in every 50), I’ve come to Hartford to collect a man who, no matter where he goes, can’t seem to escape the dead. Father Rick, as most call him, has lived in Haiti for 22 years. He is founder and director of the Haitian branch of the international children’s organization Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos (“Our Little Brothers and Sisters”).
In the Tabarre section of Port-au-Prince, Frechette runs St. Damien Hospital, Haiti’s only free pediatric hospital. He also oversees an orphanage and the sprawling St. Luke missions, a boots-on-the-ground enterprise responsible for everything from its 18 simple street-schools in a country where fewer than 75 percent of children attend school, to running water and food to the city’s most ferocious slums.
Additionally, every Thursday—since long before the earthquake—Frechette and a band of Haitian volunteers trek to the city morgue and claim the nameless dead, who lie naked in bloated heaps on a blood-streaked concrete floor. “You’ve heard of Tuesdays with Morrie,” Frechette smiles, “this is Thursdays with the Krokmo” (a Creole pejorative term for undertaker. It translates as the “death hook,” meaning the show is over). The place is jammed and the dead often piled seven or eight high. The workers there are so inured to the stench and spectacle, that Frechette has seen a morgue attendant slaloming on roller blades around the bodies and workers eating their lunch while sitting on stacks of cadavers as though on breaktime in the office kitchenette.
In Haiti, even before the quake, dead bodies were nothing more than background music—as commonplace as they are unnoticed. If they didn’t end up in the stark death-cave that is the general hospital morgue, they were burned in the streets on the spot where they died (a pragmatic hygiene concern). The decency and sentimentality that a better-developed society affords are luxuries here. Father Rick and his men gather the bodies themselves, packing them into makeshift coffins fashioned from supermarket cardboard boxes. They then truck them outside the city, up a sun-bleached highway that runs alongside the Caribbean Sea, to the rolling wastelands of Titanyen, which translates from Creole as the “fields of less than nothing.” A New Orleans-style Haitian jazz-funeral band—all horns and drums—plays graveside. Father Rick, an irreverent sort, calls them “The Grateful Dead.” Then he and his men plant the cardboard coffins in large holes dug by their own gravediggers, endowing their cargo in death with a tiny modicum of the dignity that eluded them in life.
When I meet Father Rick in Hartford, he is torn between two families. In the quake, he lost about 10 people on his staff, with many more unaccounted for. Several of his missions are damaged or completely demolished. Many of his Haitian employees are homeless, living in tent cities in public parks. But he missed the quake itself and feels bad about it—a shepherd, he tells me, should ride such episodes out with his flock. And even though he rushed back to Haiti in the chaotic days that followed, he was forced to return to Hartford after several days to tend to pressing business stateside. His cancer-stricken mother was dying. He had to see her off, then bury her. She died shortly after he performed a bedside family Mass. The day I meet him in Hartford is the day after his mother’s funeral.