A Canadian soldier stands guard by the Canadian Embassy March 29, 2024, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as violence spreads and armed gangs expand their control over the capital. OSV News photo/Ralph Tedy Erol, Reuters

Haiti violence, lawlessness forces longtime U.S. missionary priest to evacuate

By  Gina Christian, OSV News
  • April 22, 2024

As Haiti's capital spirals into lawlessness, a longtime U.S. missionary has been forced to evacuate -- while Haitian Catholics in the U.S. are doubling down on prayer for their troubled homeland.

Father Thomas Hagan, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, returned to the U.S. in mid-April after some three decades of ministering 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.

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 was announced in an April 18 post to the ministry's Facebook page.

"Haiti continues to rage in chaos and violence," wrote Hands Together executive director Doug Campbell in the post. "After several weeks in that environment, we knew it was time (for Father Hagan) to leave."

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.

But even after the State Department began evacuating U.S. citizens, "obviously Father Tom stayed," wrote Campbell.

At the same time, the Department of Homeland Security under the Biden administration has resumed deportations of Haitian migrants, flying several dozen back to that nation April 18 in a move that has prompted outrage among several immigrant advocates.

Conditions in Port-au-Prince have continued to worsen, with gang attacks taking place throughout the city and the port itself -- upon which the island nation is crucially dependent for supplies -- strangled by gang feuds, leading International Organization for Migration chief in Haiti Philippe Branchat to call Port-au-Prince "a city under siege."

In a March 3 livestreamed Mass, Father Hagan himself admitted that "probably in all the years I've been in Haiti, I don't think it's ever been as bad as it is right now."

The accelerating risk ultimately led the priest to return to the U.S., although Campbell said in his Facebook post that it was "remarkable" the Hands Together schools have remained open following Father Hagan's departure.

"We continue our classes, our feeding, and our outreach," wrote Campbell. "I don't think there is anyone else doing this."

Campbell noted in the Facebook post that the ministry's "25 years of nearly daily interactions with Cite Soleil" had created "very deep roots" that enabled the priest to leave Haiti safely.

"Father Tom drove with relative immunity to the Dominican Republic bypassing many checkpoints on this precarious journey," wrote Campbell. "Indeed, Father Tom's popularity was reflected in the smiles and handshakes offered to him by the soldiers."

In July 2023, Father Hagan had negotiated a fragile truce between four gang leaders, who "promise(d) our loving God ... to bring peace to all people ... to bring security to all people ... to join hands with all people who are dedicated to making peace."

Among the signatories of the document, a digital copy of which Father Hagan provided to OSV News, was Jimmy "Barbecue" Chérizier, who has emerged as one of Haiti's most powerful men amid that nation's multiple, sustained crises such as political instability, natural disasters, foreign intervention and international debt.

In July 2021, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated; in April 2023, the head of the United Nations office in Haiti warned the nation was sliding into "a catastrophic spiral of violence."

Speaking to OSV News shortly after brokering the gang truce, Father Hagan admitted his ministry placed him in constant danger of death.

He offered the March 3 liturgy for a former regular attendee named David, who "two weeks ago … was kidnapped and murdered." Also killed recently was one of the Hands Together teachers.

In Philadelphia, more than 200 Haitian Catholics from that city as well as New York, New Jersey and the Harrisburg area of Pennsylvania gathered at St. William Catholic Church for an April 20 day of prayer for Haiti. The 12-hour event, organized by the Haitian Catholic Community of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, included recitations of the Divine Mercy chaplet and rosary, Eucharistic adoration, Mass, and praise and worship featuring Christian singer Frère Gigui.

Father Eugène Almonor, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate and the community's chaplain, told OSV News in March that the situation in Haiti -- where his parents still live -- is untenable.

"We cannot continue (like this)," said Father Almonor. "Now is the time to stop. Because we want to live in serenity and peace."

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