Vickroy: From Haiti to the Southland: Thank you
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy October 24, 2012 4:04PM
Haiti: there and back
I was touring Respond Now, a Chicago Heights social service organization that helps the poor, when the subject of Haiti came up for the first time. It was a few weeks before Christmas 2009, and I was chatting with volunteer Elizabeth Wisnasky about the growing need for food and warm clothing across the Southland. One thing led to another, and she said, at last, “There’s a priest in Haiti who wants us to start making burial palls for the dead.”
Back then, I knew that Haiti was somewhere in the Caribbean and that it was desperately poor, but I didn’t think much more of Wisnasky’s new assignment. Not until the following month.
In January 2010, a devastating earthquake leveled much of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital city. The disaster piled on to the misery that the people of Haiti already knew too well, and it catapulted the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country onto an international stage.
Remembering Wisnasky’s statement, I called her the day after the quake. Was anyone in these parts doing anything to help Haiti? She told me her burial pall group was set to meet the very next day. She also told me to contact John Shattuck, a parishioner at St. Elizabeth Seton Church in Orland Hills.
“He is collecting water bottles and other things to send there,” she said.
Shattuck promptly told me he was not interested in being interviewed for a story. It took some persuading, but finally, the Frankfort businessman began to share information about the work he was doing on behalf of Haiti and children in other poor countries through a Christian mission, Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos.
Thus began a two-year newspaper/source relationship that culminated in the SouthtownStar’s series, “Haiti: Two Years Later.”
As many of you know, photographer Matt Marton and I traveled to Haiti with Shattuck in February. Our intent was to follow the trail of compassion from the Southland to the very people it was destined to help. After writing about local humanitarian efforts to help Haiti, we wanted to see for ourselves where all the shoes, clothes, money, medical supplies and, of course, burial palls that originated in these parts ended up.
Our series introduced readers to the work of Father Rick Frechette, as well as many others who tirelessly attend to the medical, spiritual, social and educational needs of the Haitian people. If you haven’t yet read it, please visit southtownstar.suntimes.com/news/HaitiTwoYearsLater/index.html and check it out.
Updated: November 26, 2012 6:32AM
All they needed to know was that a priest in Haiti needed their help.
For more than two years, devoted volunteers have gathered regularly in church meeting rooms across the Southland to create shrouds for people they’ve never met and whose names may never be known.
Sue D’Amore, of Lockport, Marion Walles, of Mokena, and Dee Radgowski, of Frankfort, are among the many who give time, talent and precious storage space in their own homes to the burial pall ministry.
Organized by Elizabeth Wisnasky, of Tinley Park, the volunteers apply ribbons, pictures and other decorations to sheets and pillowcases. They write loving phrases in permanent marker. They sprinkle glitter and dab with paint.
They do their best to give Haiti’s poor, unclaimed dead what they so often could not get in life: dignity.
On Saturday, the 1,800-mile gap between the Southland and Port-au-Prince was bridged when the Rev. Rick Frechette, a priest and doctor who serves in Haiti, came to Orland Hills to say “thank you.”
Frechette was in Chicago to attend the annual meeting of the Friends of the Orphans Midwest, a funding arm of Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos. He made a special trip to the southland to say Mass at St. Elizabeth Seton Church. Afterward, he attended a reception in the church gathering room, where he met with many of the people who have supplied him with more than 40,000 burial palls since he began asking for them more than two years ago.
Frechette was accompanied by Marie Esther Desir and Antoine Jean, Haitians who grew up in orphanages run by Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos. Desir sings a capella at the funerals Frechette oversees. She also sings each week at the morgue. Jean works as an interpreter for American visitors and runs his own school. Both are devoted to helping their people. Both pray for better times for Haiti.
During the service, Frechette told the crowd of about 70 people that the highest charity on Earth is to give to the dead.
“Because the dead have no way to repay you,” he said. “I am pleased to be here and thank you in person for the ministry on behalf of the people who have died.”
Once a week, Frechette and a band of volunteers enter the city morgue in Port-au-Prince and begin the gut-wrenching job of burying the unclaimed dead. They take as many rotting bodies as officials will allow. They wrap them, bless them, cover them with handmade palls and transport them to a seaside cemetery with a name that translates to “Less Than Nothing.”
“To say you need a lot of guts to do it is the understatement of the year,” Frechette told the congregation. “The dead in Haiti are so different from the dead we see. They are rotting, naked, piled one on top of the other. You can easily think they are garbage.”
To keep from throwing up or breaking down, the burial crew — who call themselves “The Grateful Dead” — sing, dance, sip rum and smoke cigars.
Though most are nameless, Frechette insists “the dead that we take care of in Port-au-Prince are absolutely worthy dead. They are the sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews of someone,” he said.
The fact that they lie neglected and unclaimed, he said, is further proof that poverty continues to humiliate into death.
“That’s wrong. We believe, and rightly so, that life is sacred through the passage of death,” he said. “To honor them and thank God for their lives is to take them out of the humiliation of poverty and bury them with dignity.”
During Communion, Desir sang a song she wrote called “Misery.” After the service, she told me how she hopes that one day the world will hear her singing and learn about the struggles of her people.
Soon after the earthquake in January 2010, Andrea Bocelli heard a tape of Desir’s singing and flew her to Rome to sing with him. She’s still waiting for the next big break.
After the service, Jackie Grider, of Lockport, said the sermon “was just breathtaking. So simple, but right to the heart. What touched me most was when he said you cannot be rewarded for helping the dead.
“It was such a joy to meet Antoine and Esther,” she said. “It makes everything so much more real.”
The volunteers were able to hug and applaud Desir, who speaks Creole. Through interpretation, they learned that she is married, has three children and in addition to helping Frechette, she has a job cleaning bodies at the morgue.
Christen Morrison, who helps run the pall burial ministry at St. Dennis Church in Lockport, said, through tears, “Father Rick is the man on Earth behind the magic. God’s hands are in all of this, but he is carrying on God’s work here on Earth.”
Dolores Kowski, of Tinley Park, said, “We are such a small part of what he does. And here he is, thanking us.”
The Rev. Bill Gubbins, of St. Elizabeth Seton Parish, said Frechette’s visit meant much to the volunteers.
“He’s their hero, a man they truly admire,” he said.
For Wisnasky, who has watched the ministry she began blossom into a movement that has volunteers now making pants, shirts, dresses and diapers for children in Haiti as well as other Third World countries, the opportunity to meet the man behind her calling was “powerful,” she said.
Wisnasky played piano while Desir sang during the service.
“I cried the first time I heard her sing, even before I knew what the song was about,” she said.
When they met, Wisnasky said, Desir told her, “I love you, I love you. Your mission brings love and peace and dignity to my people.”
While she was in town, Desir was invited to record some of her songs at Axes Music in Frankfort.
Richard and Darlene Edelmann, of Calumet City, learned about the burial pall program through Respond Now, a social service organization in Chicago Heights.
“The mission shows a deep appreciation for humanity and of those who are less capable of dealing with life’s struggles,” Richard said.
Because of his work, Frechette is a finalist for the prestigious “Opus Prize,” given annually to unsung heroes of any faith tradition, anywhere in the world, who are solving today’s most persistent social problems.
Speaking about Frechette, Darlene Edelmann said, “It was wonderful to see someone that just luminates, he shines so brightly, like God. His work is so precious and he does it with such grace and dignity. He’s a beautiful soul. I thank God for him.”