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For Father Frechette, faith pays off in Haiti

By Chris Jenkins
Photo courtesy Marquette University Law School

With his funding drying up last year, Rev. Richard Frechette, C.P. faced a choice: He could scale back his humanitarian efforts in Haiti and lay off half his staff, or he could start spending the six-week cash reserve he’d built up in case of emergency.

He simply couldn’t stomach the idea of turning away so many people not when an 80 percent unemployment rate is just one of the litany of large-scale problems facing the troubled Caribbean nation. So he dipped into the reserve fund to keep the orphanages, hospitals and schools running.

Soon after that, he was named the 2012 recipient of the $1 million Opus Prize award for faith-based social entrepreneurship.

The lesson?

“When you do the right thing, the next right thing happens,” he says. “It always does. You can be sure of it.”

Father Frechette is one of 10 Opus Prize recipients being honored during Mission Week, Marquette’s annual examination of its Catholic and Jesuit identity. The recipients, or representatives of the organizations they built, have traveled to Marquette from all over the world and are speaking in a series of events on campus and in the community.

Father Frechette spoke to an audience at Eckstein Hall in an “On the Issues” forum hosted by Mike Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy.

Father Frechette painted a bleak picture of Haiti, a country that appeared to be headed toward better times before it was battered by three hurricanes in 2008 and a devastating magnitude-7.0 earthquake in 2010.

And while the earthquake led to a worldwide outpouring of sympathy and funding, Father Frechette says much of that money got tied up in bureaucracies. Other outside aid organizations did some good in Haiti, then left when their funding dried up.

“’Build back better’ led to ‘build practically nothing,’” he says.

Today, Father Frechette says Haiti is perhaps worse off than ever. Deforestation and soil erosion is choking off whatever was left of the local farming industry. A young population with no direction plus guns, gangs, drugs and kidnappings is giving rise to a culture of lawlessness.

He describes it as a “complete bottoming out.”

Still, Father Frechette says he is optimistic about the efforts of Haitian President Michel Martelly, who took office in 2011. And he relishes small victories, such as the first smile from an orphan who has lost everything.

Father Frechette acknowledges that the problems he faces every day could cause despair if it weren’t for his abiding faith and a sense of perspective.

He recalls when a nun came to Haiti and was stunned by the problems she saw. But instead of being overwhelmed, she immediately started working on problems she knew she could fix from comforting a crying baby to painting a run-down house.

“You see something that’s wrong, stop and do something about it,” he says.

Father Frechette hopes people will take that lesson to heart, starting in their own communities and gradually expanding their horizons.

“If your heart is right, you’ll start here,” he says.

Click here for more information on Mission Week 2013.


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