By Mark Dupont
Gerri Frechette liked to joke that her son, Father Richard Frechette, better known by fellow Passionists, family and friends as Father Rick, got his stubborn determination from her. It’s a determination that has led this Passionist priest, ordained in 1978 and doctor of osteopathic medicine on a 26-year mission to improve living conditions and health care for the world’s poorest children.
On Jan. 12, while home in Connecticut to care for his dying mother Gerri, Father Rick watched helplessly, in horror and shock, as news reports of the devastating 7.0 earthquake in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, became public, its terrible impact taking shape. For him these media reports were especially dreadful, frightening and personal.
Since receiving his medical degree in 1998 from the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine, Father Rick has been overseeing the development and operation of the 120-bed children’s hospital, St. Damien’s, located in Tabarre, just 15 miles northeast of the epicenter of the earthquake in Port-Au-Prince.
It is a hospital he helped build and a facility which provides long-term care to critically ill children and outpatient services to more than 40,000 children and adults each year.
St. Damien’s Pediatric Hospital opened in 2006, part of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) (Our Little Brothers and Sisters), an international agency founded in 1954 by a young American priest serving in Mexico, Father William Wasson, to provide homes for homeless youth. More than 16,000 children have since grown up in the NPH family, which now operates homes in eight additional countries: Honduras, Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Peru and Bolivia. Today, more than 3,300 children are being cared for in a loving, secure environment.
In a moving exchange between a dying mother and her dedicated son, one Father Rick will certainly remember the rest of his life; Gerri Frechette gave her son some final motherly advice: “Leave immediately and return to Haiti to care for the victims of this tragedy.”
In an open letter to his Passionist community and their supporters, he related this final conversation. “She said to me, ‘You have to go, the problems there are worse than mine.’”
Just 24 hours later, Father Rick with other staff arrived in Santo Domingo. The next morning, through the courtesy of the Dominican Republic government, they boarded the presidential helicopter for a quick transport to Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
What greeted them was the stark reality of the devastation left in the wake of the initial earthquake and its numerous aftershocks. According to the International Red Cross, the earthquake has affected 3 million people. The actual death toll may never be known, though the Haiti government now suggests it will be some 200,000 lives lost.
Among their first tasks was the medical evacuation of American volunteers, as well as of one of the Cuban doctors serving in Haiti.
Then Father Rick’s attention quickly turned to ministering to the dying and their families, conducting burial services within hours of arriving on site, a scene captured by a news crew from “NBC Nightly News,” which interviewed Father Rick on its Jan. 14 evening broadcast.
In an e-mail later on Jan. 14, Father Rick outlined his first hours back in the stricken area which included burying co-workers from the Haitian ministries, individuals he had worked closely with over the years.
“We had 18 funerals today, one for John who works at our St. Luke program,” he wrote. “He often stopped to at my door to tell me the milestone of his developing baby, which delighted him no end. John ran our computerized language lab.”
Father Rick went on to speak of the deaths of so many that worked in the various homes, medical clinics and outreach centers run by Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos, including the hospital’s only physician’s assistant, a woman simply known as Immacula as well as the death of an ex-pequeno from one of the NPH homes, Wilfrid Altisme, who was in his fifth year of seminary for priesthood. Devastation beyond comprehension surrounded them.
Structural damages to the pediatric hospital itself seem superficial at first glance, but about half the outer perimeter walls have fallen. The old NPH hospital in Petionville is in ruins, and teams of workers were found digging there for an American volunteer named Molly who had not been seen since the initial earthquake.
Because of these conditions and continuing worries concerning aftershocks and the structural integrity of structures that remained standing, the hospital’s operations where moved outside under tents. The onslaught of victims was far outpacing the diminishing supplies, not the least of which was diesel and water.
Even prior to the earthquake, Father Rick had stated that he has never seen any place as devastated as Haiti with its heartbreaking poverty and desperate living conditions. This latest tragedy perpetuates what was already a severely distressed city and country, children being the most vulnerable to the effects of such a cataclysmic occurrence.
In addition to its hospitals and children’s homes, NPH has also started the St. Luke program which helps young adults once they are old enough to leave the orphanages.
“If we don’t help our children integrate into society then it’s our failure,” he said in an article published by NPH. “We need to look for solutions to help the poorest children and create employment for our young adults that incorporates dignity and compassion.”
Currently 160 former orphans are employed by St. Luke’s, involving 16 street schools, a nutritional program for school children, burial services for the indigent, mobile clinics, food and water distribution as well as disaster services.
Father Rick first learned about the work of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos in the early 1980s while in Mexico to learn Spanish. After accepting an invitation to help out at a NPH facility, he became fascinated by the work of this organization, eventually joining it with the full blessing and support of his American Passionist community.
He currently serves as director of medical services for NPH International. In addition to his time spent providing medical care in Haiti, he also travels the world raising awareness on the needs of NPH in helping the poorest children in the world.
The provincial of the Eastern Province of St. Paul of the Cross, Father Joseph Jones, expressed the support of the entire Passionist community for the work of Father Rick. “We have long been moved by Father Rick’s commitment to the poor, especially the impoverished children of Haiti,” he said.
“Clearly this is a dark hour for a people who have suffered untold misery for many generations. Yet as I have personally witnessed, their faith is truly inspiring and we stand ready to support them now and in the future as they rebuild,” he promised.
In closing his open letter to his Passionist brethren, Father Rick wrote, “Let’s stay bound together in friendship and prayer. God bless us all, especially the suffering people of Haiti, and my dear mother, Gerri Frechette.”
Fr. Rick was able to spend a few days in Haiti sorting out things before returning to his mother’s bedside. Gerri Frechette passed away soon after his return, surrounded by her beloved husband and all her children. Her “determined” son offered Mass in her room praying for his mother who he no doubt hoped would also carry the intentions of the people of Haiti with her into her heavenly reward.
Donations for emergency relief for Father Rick’s ministry in Haiti, including St. Damien’s Pediatric Hospital, can be made through:
Haiti Hospital Relief Fund
80 David Street
South River, NJ 08882