The American priest has spent 25 years building orphanages, hospitals and schools in Haiti’s slums
Father Rick Frechette, an American priest with 25 years’ experience in Haiti, has just built 30 houses. They have sparkling Caribbean views, open porches and come in pink, lime-green and blue. Each house costs just $7,000, and they may soon have solar power. But these are not holiday villas, they are houses for the very poor – replacement shelters for the shaky shacks and trash-strewn rubble in Cité Soleil, the notorious slum at the edges of Port-au-Prince.
January 12 marks the two-year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Haiti, killing more than 220,000 people and displacing more than 1m, many of whom remain homeless.
“These houses are as earthquake-proof as we can get. They are a model for what we can do if we try,” says Father Rick, 58. He notes that community leaders in Cité Soleil, where his charitable organisation Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) Haiti has deep roots, were asked what kind of housing was needed most before the charity began the building project.
Many of the young Haitians now running the 28 NPH Haiti schools, medical clinics and programmes in the impoverished areas around Port-au-Prince grew up in St Helene’s, the original home for orphans founded by Father Rick.
“If you go out into the world and try to help people in need, you get a new family and a new home. This is my family now,” he says, reflecting on the thousands of children who have lived in his two homes, or were born or treated in St Damien’s, his state-of-the art paediatric hospital in the main NPH compound in the suburb of Tabarre.
Father Rick’s own living quarters consist of a simple upstairs hospital room at St Damien’s – furnished with a bed, a chair and a fan to combat the humid heat – where he retreats to write poetry and play the guitar (“I tinker”) late at night. He greets visitors downstairs in his small office on the ground floor; across the hall are outpatient waiting rooms that are packed with mothers and babies. It is only 7.30am but he has already offered mass in the whitewashed chapel on the NPH grounds, and traded in his robes for a black T-shirt and a silver cross tied around his neck with a leather shoelace.
Throughout the modern hospital, waiting areas are brightened by paintings by Cité Soleil artists and colourful curtains. Outside, neat pathways lined with palm trees lead to more buildings housing the rehabilitation centre, a school for the deaf and blind, and the bakery, carpentry and food production centre. Just 200 yards away, with its own gated entrance, is the outdoor courtyard of Father Rick’s second home for children, the Angels of Light, and nearby is another new school, “just three cement blocks away from completion”. Along the walkways, staffers and programme leaders of the charity, which has created 1,600 local jobs, enthusiastically greet Father Rick in Creole. “Everyone around here calls me Papa,” he says.
Father Rick grew up in a family of six children in West Hartford, Connecticut and joined the Passionist Order in 1974. In 1987 he moved to Haiti to start a branch of NPH, a Mexico-based home for orphaned and abandoned children in nine countries, created in 1954 by another American priest, Father William Wasson. “All NPH homes were founded on core principles of love, sharing and work. At 18, everyone gives a year of service,” says Father Rick. All who are capable get complete education, and many go on to university.
Father Rick’s first base in Haiti, in the mountains in Kenscoff, housed 500 orphaned children. From there he would ride a motorbike into the slums to assess needs, and recruit jobless teenagers for work programmes, new schools and medical clinics. “It was the time of [President Jean-Bertrand] Aristide,” he says. “There was an exodus of professionals from Haiti. There was one doctor per 15,000 people. In the US there was one per 500.”
In 1994, at the age of 40, Father Rick applied to medical school; he continued to run NPH Haiti throughout his training in Long Island, New York. “My classmates were 22 and had just graduated in chemistry and biology. I had a middle-aged mind,” he laughs. With new medical contacts, Father Rick eventually built a hospital, adding neonatal and oncology programmes and surgical facilities that turned St Damien’s into Haiti’s top paediatric medical centre.
After the earthquake of 2010, and the subsequent cholera outbreak, Father Rick turned his focus to the relief operation. “We lost staff members, volunteers and hundreds of colleagues but St Damien’s had minimal damage and we could offer strong help.” Because of poor construction and foundations, around 200,000 homes were destroyed across the country. The government says 10,000 homes have been built since, although many are transitional shelters. As orphaned and abandoned children began to appear at the gates in the aftermath of the quake there was an urgent need for more accommodation at St Damien’s.
“Our supplies arrived by steel shipping containers, 40 by 8 feet, so we cut out windows and built dorms,” Father Rick says, guiding a tour inside one of the dormitories, where bunks are arranged on each side. “With the aftershocks, the kids were safer in here, although the steel structures do rust.”
Behind the two hospitals, a gravel parking area leads to a modern warehouse building: the cholera camp. Inside, 150 sufferers are attached to IVs in neat rows of hospital beds. “The excellent Haitian team is reinforced by outside medical groups including the Mayo Clinic,” says Father Rick, “Many doctors have travelled down here with their teams to volunteer.”
So far this year the cholera camp has treated 20,000 people, and its move from 12 relief tents to a sturdy iron-framed building with a concrete base and aluminium roofing is an example of what Father Rick can do with donations. “Most of this was built by small and large donors from around the world. They were hugely generous after the earthquake,” he says. “But Haiti’s fallen off the map with the media and there’s been a dramatic decline in donations,” he says. “Cholera has a death rate of 50 per cent. That means 10,000 people would have died without care here. And trauma surgeries are expensive. We’ve already had to start cutting back.”
Back in his office with its tinsel Christmas tree, Father Rick brightens at the prospect of adding solar panels on to the 30 new houses. “We could make the panels ourselves,” he says. “They would provide the first power to a Cité Soleil home and create new jobs.”
“This is my favourite passage of the Bible, from the Old Testament,” says Father Rick, opening his New American Bible to Isaiah, Chapter 11 and reading out a line. “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse. And from its roots a bud shall blossom.” What do the words mean? “When you think you’re at the very end, at the rotten stump, in decay, something grows. You keep tending to the thing that seems dead or not working and, with your tending, something new and beautiful sprouts up.”
Father Rick also keeps a photograph of his mother in his Bible. Did she visit Haiti? “Oh, yes. She was here a number of times and was very proud. I’d been away from home for years but in 2009, when my mother was dying of cancer, I decided to go home for Christmas and supervise her pain management, as a doctor. And while I was there, the earthquake happened. When my mother saw it on television, she sent me back to Haiti. She said ‘I am just one person. This disaster affects thousands.’ She died five days later. She fully believed in our mission.”