‘Sharing people’s misery and sorrow makes them stronger’
By Donna Vickroy Sun-Times Media February 22, 2012 8:36PM
Updated: March 24, 2012 9:08AM
When they were kids, Rick and Steve Frechette served side-by-side as altar boys.
“Rick volunteered to work funerals so he could get out of school early,” Steve Frechette recalled.
And every Sunday after church, his older brother would hold Mass for kids in their Hartford, Conn., neighborhood.
“Then, we’d go and play football,” Steve said.
Early on, there were signs that Rick Frechette would enter the clergy but nothing to indicate he’d end up ministering to people in one of the harshest, most challenging parts of the world.
Some have called him a candidate for sainthood, this man who first earned a degree in theology and then put himself through medical school when he realized the people he served needed a doctor as much as a priest.
As regional director of Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos, Caribbean, Frechette oversees a network of child care facilities that includes an orphanage, a pediatric hospital and several community outreach posts. His work is anything but routine. He has comforted, cured, blessed and buried, all the while seeking out pockets of humor in this too-often somber existence because, after all, he is still human.
“Nothing prepared him for all this,” his brother says. “He’s had to figure it out as he went along.”
That learning curve has been rife with close calls, surprises and affirmation in some of the most unexpected places.
Years after Frechette had taken on the gruesome task of burying Port-au-Prince’s unclaimed dead, a Haitian-American family from Orlando, Fla., suddenly insisted they owned the land where some 10,000 bodies had been laid to rest. They wanted $60,000, money Frechette refused to pull from his over-tapped budget.
But after negotiations failed, the priest agreed to meet the plaintiffs at the cemetery site to see if they could work out some kind of agreement. When they arrived at the scene, cows were wandering the grounds — something Frechette had never seen before and hasn’t since.
Many Haitians believe cows are sacred, that they are reincarnated people. The incident spooked the alleged landowner into acquiescing. A short time later, the government made it official by declaring the area, which also contains the bodies of the 300,000 killed in the January 2010 earthquake, common domain. It enabled Frechette to continue his burial mission without being financially beholden to anyone.
Frechette laughs at the implication that he has a pipeline to God.
“Everyone does,” he says.
He is a white man from the United States who can walk among Haiti’s needy, afflicted, criminal and pious with
unprecedented grace and influence.
He begins his days with Mass in St. Philomena chapel on the grounds of St. Damien Pediatric Hospital. He assesses the day’s attendees — mostly Haitian, American, Italian — and delivers the service in the appropriate language. From there, the day can go in myriad directions, one minute tending to staff needs, the next meeting with American senators interested in learning more about his cause.
Two things led Rick Frechette down the path to Catholic priesthood and, ultimately, Haiti.
When he was 10, his 6-year-old cousin died after routine appendix surgery. “The anesthesiologist was drunk,” Frechette said.
Seeing the way that death destroyed his uncle instilled in him a deep empathy.
Then in high school, Frechette made a conscious decision to befriend a girl who was being shunned by other kids. He knew that being kind to her was the right thing to do, but he still took time to consider the consequences he’d suffer at the hands of his classmates. After weighing things, he decided the very next day he would talk to the girl, maybe ask to carry her books.
When he got to school the following morning, there was an announcement over the public address system that the girl had died the previous night.
“I completely, absolutely wasted my chance to be nice to her,” he said. “It was gone forever, and I really regretted it.”
He resolved not to waste another minute of his chance to do good. He went in search of purpose and found it in serving God.
“In all cases, it starts with feeling the pain of the other person and not wanting to keep that pain going,” he said. “I just had this instinct that sharing people’s misery and sorrow makes them stronger.”
So now he comforts and supports, he heals and blesses. And, sometimes in a country where chaos rules the day, he’s not really sure of the right thing to do, but he trusts in his faith enough to follow his heart.
During the earthquake of 2010, the convent near the cathedral in downtown Port-au-Prince collapsed. Several of the sisters were killed. Those who survived were sent to the Dominican Republic.
One day, Frechette received a frantic message from one of the surviving sisters who had heard of two terrible things: Haitian gangs had taken the head of one of the sisters and placed it on some exposed rebar. Worse, she added, “We think all the (Communion) hosts are still in the tabernacle.”
So Frechette decided to head to the cathedral to retrieve the head and the bodies of the other sisters who were killed to bury them beside the chapel. But roving gangs were pilfering the dead, looking for money and other valuables.
“On our way to the cathedral, we got jumped,” Frechette said. “We ended up in a fistfight.”
Visitors from Montana who accompanied him were shocked to see a man of the cloth engaged in a brawl. But he explains that “there’s a line and people can’t cross it for the greater good.” If they had given in to the bandits, they would have lost their truck and the cargo of rice that was intended for the hungry encountered along the way.
Finally, Frechette negotiated with the gang leaders who agreed to take money in exchange for the bodies of the sisters.
“Then I saw the big bell,” he said. “I said to the gang, ‘I want that bell’ and they said, ‘No, it’s too valuable.’”
In such desperate, extreme circumstances, Frechette explained, a person can’t react in a manner that they might on a “normal” day.
The gang leader pointed out that the clacker was missing and that the bell couldn’t be rung.
“I said, ‘I can ring that bell,’ and the gang leader said, ‘How?’ and I said, ‘If you ever cut the head off a sister again, I will cut your head off and use it to ring the bell.’”
Something about the way he delivered his message, his anger or perhaps his forcefulness, caused the other gang members to back off. They pleaded with their leader to let the crazy priest have the bell.
Finally, the leader compromised. “He said, ‘If you can pick up that bell, you can have it.’” Frechette said.
Of course, he couldn’t budge the 3-ton bell.
“I didn’t know what to do, so I prayed,” he said. “I said, ‘God, you probably don’t know me, but I could sure use a backhoe in the next 15 minutes’.”
Sure enough, along came a backhoe, Frechette said.
“We gave the guy three beers to lift the bell and put it on our truck,” he said.
On their way back to St. Damien, they saw a dead man on the side of the road.
“Oh (expeletive),” Frechette recalled his assistant saying. Hadn’t they had enough for one night?
“He said, ‘Father, this man will still be dead tomorrow, can we come and get him then?’ But I said, ‘I’ll make you a deal. If he’s really rotten, we’ll leave him. If not, we’ll take him.’”
So they stopped, checked out the body and started lifting it onto the truck. The man awoke, startled, and asked what they were doing.
“Wouldn’t you know it, it was the first time we ever lifted a dead man who wasn’t dead,” Frechette said, laughing about what happened next.
His assistant told the man, “Don’t ask stupid questions. You’re dead, and we’re gonna bury you.”
Naturally, the guy flipped out, broke free and took off for the hills, Frechette said.
Today, the bell sits in front of the quaint chapel. It is an imposing yet silent reminder that despite what madness comes its way, Haiti will endure.
“What’s special about my brother?” Steve Frechette said. “His heart. His heart is totally into this.”