February 24 was my first complete day at St. Damien’s with Fr. Rick Frechette – a Passionist Priest, the medical director of the hospital, and the leader of St. Luke Medical Corps (an outreach group that, along with other activities, works in the slums of Port au Prince).
Luc Dorvil, Patrick Tomeny and I were looking forward to this new opportunity to continue helping in the wake of the earthquake by supporting the Church in a new way in its response to the tragedy.
The day started as it would for each one thereafter: we celebrated mass at 0700 in the chapel at St. Damien’s. Worshippers from many countries – Italy, Mexico, Germany, the US , Haiti and others – gathered into the somewhat damaged structure. They were all working together with Fr. Rick in some way.
We celebrated in English, French and Creole. Fr. Rick has been in Haiti for some 22 years so he speaks Creole, and during this time he has cultivated a fine group of young Haitians that assist him. Many of them were attending mass, and they speak Creole as their mother tongue. Thus the Creole, which just happens to be the language of Haiti anyway!
Mass that day was much like many that would follow: there were many bodies of dead children and adults outside the chapel as we celebrated. They were victims of the earthquake that were discovered beneath the rubble by the Missionaries of Charity or on the street by the St. Luke’s team. The names of the adults and the children were unknown to us. The previous day Fr. Rick had buried some sisters from a local community. Some thirty of them had been killed in the earthquake, another example of how the Church was devastated by the tragedy.
After mass the incense rose to the heavens as we prayed over the bodies and sang – symbolic of how our prayers were rising to the Lord. The incense had a practical value as well: the bodies, despite the fact that they were in bags, smelled terrible. Never mind…..Fr. Rick wanted to give them a dignified burial. And that is what they received.
After mass we headed to a local cemetery some 20 minutes away by car. It was my first experience of riding in the back of a large flatbed truck while seated beside body bags. That olfactory memory remains with me to this day – the first of many new experiences that I would have while working with Fr. Rick.
We arrived at the cemetery and headed straight to the graves. They were large concrete openings that Fr. Rick had rented for the occasion. Yes, that is how it works in Haiti: one pays money to rent a grave. The more one pays, the longer the dead person can remain in the grave. And when your time is up, your bones are removed and burned or discarded. Such is life in Haiti: the dead are not of much use to anyone. And their bones are of even less value.
We passed the voodoo priests on the way to the concrete tombs. They were making dolls and praying over them. Apparently, in voodooism, when a person dies, he or she becomes a spirit that does either good or bad in the world. While Christians send spirits “up” to God, the voodoo priests send them “sideways” – to do good or bad. I walked by the priests with great fascination. And I didn’t sense any spirits coming my way – good or bad. Hmmmm. Maybe I am not sensitive enough.
We pushed 5 bodies into the grave that day. We didn’t know the names of the people, but we prayed for them nevertheless and entrusted them to God’s mercy. The rest of the day was spent assessing the situation and visiting the major seminary of the Archdiocese of Port au Prince. The seminary had been devastated by the earthquake and was nonfunctional, for the most part. Fr. Rick wanted to survey the area in hopes of establishing a medical clinic there together with a team from Germany. It was all part of supporting the Church in the wake of the disaster.
After a day filled with interesting experiences, I returned to the guest house where many of the volunteers were gathered – socializing and getting to know each other. It was a good opportunity to relax and to speak with others who were also trying to make a difference in a difficult situation. Patrick, Luc and I would call a tent provided by the Italian Government “home” that evening. Our first day had been a good and productive one. Well, I suppose any day above ground is a good day. Requiescant in pacem.