Dear Friends and Family,
Not quite a week ago, after a full day’s work, a small group of us left Port au Prince and headed for Jeremie Province (Lagombri), in the rain.
We reached the muddy river crossings past Jeremie City almost eight hours later (at 2am), and slept, sitting and crunched up in the truck until sunrise, since it is not wise to negotiate the mud rivers when you can't see.
We reached St Victor almost two hours after that, and abandoning the truck for lack or roads, continued on an off road "polaris," for another hour and a half of a hair-raising ride, on mule paths that severely tested all the mechanics of the jeepish buggy, and of our bodies.
After two flat tires, and reaching where even mules had to give up, we continued another hour on foot.
As we walked, the rains came again. The red mud made everything slippery, and we spent as much of our time keeping our balance as walking, and we were wet and cold and mud-stained.
And then out came the ants, by the millions. Covering the ground everywhere in every direction.
It took twelve laborious hours to cover those 120 miles from Port au Prince to Lagombri, the same distance as from my hometown in Connecticut, to New York City.
At home, that would be a two-hour trip, comfortably undertaken in a climatized, ant free car.
We finally arrived at St Mary Magdalen chapel to baptize 29 children.
My mud markings were a contrast, from head to toe, to the beautiful and cleanly dressed infants, toddlers and parents who waited for me, surrounded by mud, in a chapel that has no roof, no windows, no doors, no walls, thanks to hurricane Matthew, ten months ago.
The rain had finally stopped.
Now I would wet everyone all over again, with the holy water of Baptism.
A flimsy tarp, tied to the few standing pillars of the chapel, waved gently between heaven and ourselves.
That was the full extent of our protection from the elements.
Three days later, we made the same laborious trip home.
At morning mass in Port au Prince the next day, there were 21 bodies of children waiting for me, for burial.
29 baptized, 21 buried.
Do the math: 29-21= 8
Life is winning, but not by a whole lot.
Let me back up a little, taking you back to Lagombri.
After the baptisms, the women of the church committee led us to one of their homes. In this two-room hut with a dirt floor, no plumbing or electricity, there was a feast prepared for us.
These wonderful women had taken the finest yams and sweet potatoes from their sparse gardens, killed one of their 6 chickens, and bought 7 fish by combining their widows’ mites together, and had prepared for us what really was, in that setting, a gala.
The oldest, who looks ancient, with strong tremors of a Parkinson like disease, told me stories. It was like talking with a wizened and ancient sage, and during the conversation I was shocked to learn that I am eight years her senior.
Her name is Madame Jesnor, and she told me how during the hurricane, their whole house (a two room shack) was ripped apart and thrown into the air over their heads, and how she and her children and grandchildren hid in the nearby corn field. (If corn falls on you, it won't hurt you. But trees will.)
There in the corn, for 5 days (the pre-storm, the wild storm, and the post-storm), drenched and cold, winds howling and ferocious, water beating on them mercilessly, as she counted and recounted her grandchildren to be sure none were missing, and noticing that her husband never woke up again after falling asleep in exhaustion, finally, the sun came out.
No home to go to, no dry clothes to take out of any drawer, no drawers, no house, no neighbor to go to (they were also all in the corn), with a dead husband to mourn and bury, and no way to take the mule path to St Victor because of fallen trees and floods.
And even if you could get there, St Victor was in the same shape as where you just left.
So was everything, for miles and miles, in every direction.
This is a small forshadowing of what a nuclear war might be like. We should all be deeply concerned.
I imagined Madame Jesnor's tale being made into a movie about a wonderful heroine.
As I write these words, today in the Catholic tradition is the feast of St Ann, grandmother of Jesus.
I see Grandmother Jesnor in the corn, her grandchildren under her Parkinsonian wings and the gaze of her bobbing head, protecting them throughout the fury.
I imagined Katharine Hepburn, who in her golden years wore her own Parkinson-like tremor almost as a trademark, playing Madame Jesnor.
I hope Madame Jesnor does not have Parkinsons. But If she does, for sure I hereby pledge to be her doctor and get her the best treatments.
But maybe she has what Kate Hepburn had. Here are Kate's own words:
"Now to squash a rumor. No, I don't have Parkinson's. I inherited my shaking head from my grandfather Hepburn. I discovered that whiskey helps stop the shaking. Problem is, if you're not careful, it stops the rest of you too. My head just shakes, but I promise you, it ain't gonna fall off!".
In a few days, we will be at the 10th month anniversary of hurricane Matthew. Plenty was shaken, but our heads haven't fallen off either.
Nature is astoundingly resilient; the hills are verdant (but far from lush).
Mango trees and breadfruit trees are re-growing their branches and leaves. Yams, sweet potatoes, peas, beans are slowly mounding the ground or climbing their poles.
Without reducing things to statistics, you would be glad to know that we have used all the $1.7 million dollars we received to help those victims of Matthew, who have hid in the corn, shivered in the cold, mourned their dead, seen their modest houses air-born, and endured barrenness and isolation for many months.
With them, we have rebuilt our schools and are now focused on the school at St Victor.
With them, we have built or repaired many houses, organized many clinics, coordinated many medical and surgical interventions for those in extreme conditions. We helped in a small way to reintroduce honeybees to the area. We have built boats.
We have, together with these great people and inspired by them, downed the broken trees, opened roadways, improved a number of roads, moved massive volumes of mud, barged in 3 million pounds of food, plants and seeds, trees, and building materials, (and another astounding amount by land, in between rains.)
We still have much to do.
We will enlist the communities (kombit) along the path from St Victor and Lagombri, and together make it a road at least for motorcycles, and a "polaris", and horses as well as mules.
We want to start rebuilding the St. Victor Church and the chapels at La Serengue and Lagombri.
We would like to invest as much as we already have, a second time, in agriculture, education, healthcare, and community building.
And do this standing on the rock of faith.
And of course, we also want to change the math.
29-21=8 will never do for us.
I am sure you feel the same.
The summer always shows a big dip in support. Any help you can send our way will be much appreciated, and used, as you see above, to rebuild life.
Thank you, and may many blessings uphold you and your families.
Saints Joachim and Ann, pray for us, and be our models and guides.
Fr Rick Frechette CP
Port au Prince
July 26, 2017