Frustration haunts Haitian priest

The Rev. Johnson Vil talks Thursday about his work in Haiti nearly two and a half years after the earthquake that devastated that country.
The Rev. Johnson Vil talks Thursday about his work in Haiti nearly two and a half years after the earthquake that devastated that country. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

Mystic - Before the Rev. Johnson Vil and his companions dug into their fish and chips lunch at the Sea Swirl Thursday, they sang grace in Creole: "The food you send to us, Father, is the food of life."

Food and life. Many people perhaps take them for granted.

But for Vil, a priest in Les Palmes, Haiti, those two words have profound significance. He survived the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people and devastated the already impoverished country.

"Before the earthquake, life was already difficult," Vil said Thursday through translator Degaule Morisset. "Life after the earthquake got even harder. The little resources we had were strained even more because people from Port-au-Prince were looking for help."

Les Palmes is a rural mountain village with a population of about 30,000. It has no running water and electricity is limited to the few buildings with access to solar panels.

Thirty residents of Les Palmes, Vil said, were confirmed dead and dozens more were unaccounted for after the quake.

Vil was in Groton recently to visit his sister, who lives in town. He shared lunch with friends from the Diocese of Norwich Outreach to Haiti and St. Mary Church in Coventry and with Anthony Calhoun, who will travel to the village in October with DOCARE, a medical outreach organization.

These organizations, Vil said, were instrumental in the village's survival long before the quake.

Vil said he was in the rectory when the earthquake hit. Outside his window, he could see his beloved church crumbling to the ground.

"It was hard to think as it was happening," Vil said as his eyes widened. "I still try not to think about it."

Immediately after the quake, he said, he held a funeral and burial for 15 villagers to prevent the spread of disease. He had to set priorities for who needed help immediately and who would have to wait for assistance. Aid workers didn't reach the village for about a week.

People were in shock, Vil said, as many of their homes were reduced to rubble. Many are still living in tents.

"It's very frustrating for me to tell people that I can't help them," Vil said. "There just aren't enough resources."

Vil said his main priorities now are building permanent homes, rebuilding the church and re-establishing the agricultural industry.

Anna DeBiasi, the development director of Outreach to Haiti, said the survivors immediately turned to Vil for guidance. "There really is no government," she said. "He's the unofficial mayor. He's the go-to guy. He settles neighbor disputes."

Outreach to Haiti supports orphanages, primary care clinics and neighborhood meal programs. It "twins," or partners, parishes here with villages in Haiti.

Barbara Charland and Lou Friedrich, parishioners at St. Mary, said they were compelled both for moral and social reasons to help with the Haitian ministry at the church, which raises money to support the secondary school, teachers' salaries and student scholarships. They started a sewing and carpentry program.

When Vil returns to Les Palmes later this month, he will find waiting there seven 55-gallon drums filled with necessities that St. Mary sent.

"How can you not help the people in Haiti?" Friedrich said. "There is just so much need."

Charland said she first went to Haiti in 1999 and was bitten by the "good Haitian bug." She has been helping ever since but was not in the country when the earthquake hit.

"When people learned that I was going, they would tell me, 'Be careful of this or be careful of that,' but what I learned is that people are people no matter where you go. If people need help, you have to help them."

After the earthquake, Vil said, the will of the people grew stronger and more resilient.

"They became more spiritual," he said. "They thought, 'If I didn't die, it was because God wanted me to live.' Their faith grew and got stronger."

i.larraneta@theday.com

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