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
I first communicated with Father Rick over a year ago, itching for an excuse to profile him. It was a fight. Frechette is averse to publicity and would prefer to be left in peace to carry on his work. He seems happy when I joke that I’ll just call him “Father Bob” throughout this story. “Could you?” he honestly inquires.
From Hartford, we hit Newark for a lengthy layover and a connection to the Dominican Republic where a nine-hour bus ride to Port-au-Prince awaits us. (Only the military, humanitarian missions, and John Travolta, it seems, are being allowed to fly into the city airport.) By the time we reach Newark, Frechette is already frayed and distracted. With a ruddy tan, dressed in cargo pants and a North Face sweatshirt, he looks more like an athletic director at a good basketball college than a man of the collar. He prides himself on his unflappability but the tension is tugging at his face. Forever several hundred emails behind, Frechette’s now about 900 in the hole. He wants to work at them during the layover and suggests I talk to the Haitians who accompanied him back home.
I ask them as a group, “Who wants to eat?” One of them says, “I will.” I mistake Yvon for the English-speaker of the bunch, but it quickly becomes apparent that “I will” is the extent of his bilingualism. We tuck into a Naugahyde booth at the Garden State Diner for 30 minutes of awkward smiles and French fries. Yvon grew up in Father Rick’s orphanage, and his late father was a big houngan (voodoo priest). He’s now Frechette’s regular coffinmaker, but all of this I learn later, since we can’t understand each other.
Built like an NFL strong safety, Yvon is eating on my tab, but he politely orders a meager appetizer basket of chicken fingers. He eats half of them, then carefully wraps up the other half in a napkin. He starts to jam them into his pocket before I stop him and fetch a doggy-bag. I don’t need to speak Creole to understand what just happened. Yvon might be in the land of plenty, but he’s headed to a place where the next meal is never assured. In a country where, pre-quake, millions of poverty-crushed Haitians resort to eating mud-cakes mixed with vegetable shortening, a half-basket of two-day-old chicken fingers can seem like a feast.
After lunch, I take a seat at the gate with the other Haitians, all of whom work for Father Rick. Among them is a Haitian-born American, who prefers I call him “Johnny B. Goode.” He speaks perfect English, and translates, as undramatically as if he were relating a weather report, the horrors the rest have seen: the crumbling walls and lost relatives; the frantic digging of friends and family out from the rubble with forks and spoons; the sleeping in the road in shifts, one family member standing sentry against cars passing in the night.
Father Rick shows up at the gate shoveling down food-court Chinese, a last break from his rice-and-beans staple, which he sometimes varies with beans-and-rice. With 200 emails knocked out, he’s returned to the land of the living, only to tell me, in steadily unaffected yet gregarious fashion, more about the land of the dead.
He describes the pauper’s cemetery near the airport, where poor Haitians who can’t afford a burial plot rent one for deceased loved ones for four or five months. Then the gravediggers come, take you out, burn whatever’s left, and throw your bones against the wall, clearing space for the next tenant.
“There are voodoo rituals there all the time,” Frechette says. “Candles in skulls. Prayers to make the dead go cause a ruckus. We send our spirits up. They send theirs’ sideways to cause problems for others. We’re the Ghost Busters, they’re the Ghost Dispatchers.” He once brought an Italian visitor to witness the ceremony, and she became so freaked out, he had to give her his cross. He constantly comforts people by giving them his crosses. He fingers the one dangling from his neck now, saying it’s his 25th in six years. “I don’t buy ones I like anymore because I’m not going to have them for long.”
Father Rick’s Haiti is a place where the dead literally stick to you. Sometimes, his boots even stink of them. Here, he shows me, popping one off. There’s a faint whiff of his morgue travels and burials on his REI boot. “That’s really tame,” he says. “I washed these. They were so bad, I wouldn’t even tie them, just tucked the laces in.” When he has to take his shoes off at airport security, he says people wonder, “What’s the matter with that guy’s feet?”
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