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Amid ongoing chaotic violence, US priest returns to his mission in Haiti

A Philadelphia priest working in Haiti has followed through on his plans to return immediately to his longtime ministry in that nation's besieged capital after a brief visit to the U.S. for medical treatment.

"The first thing I'll ask my staff is, 'Did you miss me?'" Father Thomas Hagan, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, told OSV News April 23 prior to his departure.

In mid-April, Father Hagan -- who has served some three decades in Port-au-Prince through Hands Together, the nonprofit he founded in 1986 to provide educational, pastoral and humanitarian development to Haiti's largest and poorest slum, Cité Soleil -- flew back to the U.S.

With seven campuses, the organization -- one of Cité Soleil's largest employers -- features a high school, a free clinic and a senior outreach and housing program. Hands Together also operates in Haiti's rural areas through water wells and agricultural programs, while aiding the poorest schools, clinics and parishes in the northern Diocese of Les Gonaïves.

News of Father Hagan's departure from Haiti had been announced in an April 18 post to the ministry's Facebook page, with Hands Together executive director Doug Campbell writing that the island nation's spiraling "chaos and violence" had necessitated the priest's departure.

The nation's systemic kidnappings, rapes, killings and widespread civil unrest led the U.S. Embassy in March to urge its citizens to leave Haiti as soon as possible.

Father Hagan admitted that his nonprofit's leadership team, based in Springfield, Massachusetts, would have preferred him to remain in the U.S. until the latest round of violence in Haiti had somewhat subsided.

The priest told OSV News he had arranged to retrace his recent route out of Haiti, this time flying back from the U.S to the Dominican Republic on April 25, and then traveling some eight hours by car with Hands Together staff to Port-au-Prince.

The drive, which includes passing through gang-controlled checkpoints, is "the dangerous part," said Father Hagan. "These guys stop you with guns. We called (gang members) ahead of time and made sure as soon as we arrived, they let us through."

On April 29, Hands Together confirmed to OSV News the priest successfully completed the journey back to the Haitian capital.

Father Hagan's long years of ministry also provide something of a security guarantee.

On his previous ride from Haiti to the Dominican Republic, "one guy came up with a gun and I wasn't sure if he was friendly or not," Father Hagan said. "He said, 'You saved my life. I got shot and you took care of me.'" The car was permitted to continue on its way.

The priest said he is anxious to keep the ministry, which employs about 300 in Port-au-Prince and some 200 in Gonaïves, fully operational.

"Our schools are open, except for one, and we're just opening that one up now," said Father Hagan, noting that prominent gang leader Jimmy "Barbecue" Chérizier -- who had signed a fragile gang truce brokered by the priest in July 2023 -- had specifically asked the priest to "try to open that school again."

"I said (to him), 'We'd open up if we can get the teachers in,' and ... Barbecue has got this (secured) route that we can get them into where the school is," said Father Hagan, who previously told OSV News that he has lost several employees -- among them, a teacher, a doctor and staff assistants -- amid the ongoing violence.

Father Hagan said classes may be in session, but "we're hurting for food right now.

"We get a lot of food from the (United Nations') World Food Program, but I think they're running out again," he said. "So we're down to peanut butter. That's what we're serving the students in the school ... (and) rice. We're running out of food now."

Supplies of fresh, potable water in the capital are also becoming scarce, he said, although the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (Médicins Sans Frontières) has been working to purify water from existing sources.

Father Hagan maintained that many of the gang leaders -- who prefer to be called "dirigeant," French for "director" -- are "not the pure evil that people are (making them out to be).

"I have a certain love and affection for Barbecue," said the priest. "I see the way he treats the children and the people, and goes out of his way to help the elderly. He's a little bit like Robin Hood."

At the same time, some gang leaders "have done some really barbaric and vicious things," said Father Hagan. "It's sad, but I still think you can work with them. ... I pray the prayer of St. John of the Cross: 'Lord, let me see in them what you see in them.' They're loved by God."

Chérizier, a former Haitian police officer who claims to be leading an armed revolution in Haiti, faces accusations of leading several bloody massacres in the Port-au-Prince area, although the G9 gang leader has denied all the allegations against him. He was sanctioned in 2020 by the U.S. and in 2022 by the U.N. for alleged human rights abuses.

Haiti, which has seen multiple, sustained crises such as political instability, natural disasters, foreign intervention and international debt, is being exploited by "politicians who thrive on instability" and by Latin American cartels, who use Haiti as a transit nation for drug trafficking, said Father Hagan.

Yet for all its wounds and woes, "there's beauty in Haiti," especially in "the people," said Father Hagan. And as the nation now takes its first steps to form a transitional council and name an interim prime minister, the priest said the global community needs to recognize that "we don't help (Haitians) any just by affirming what we think is evil in them."

"Maybe they have something to teach us," said Father Hagan.

Asked if he feared for his safety by returning to Haiti, the priest laughed.

"No," he said. "I'm more scared of going to our (order's) retirement home."