As Haiti descends into more chaos, priests vow to stay and minister to the people

(OSV News) -- As the nation of Haiti spirals into further violence and chaos, Catholic clergy there are reported to be remaining in place to serve the populace.

"Where can we go? We have to stay in the midst of the people," Haitian native Father Eugène Almonor, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate and chaplain of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's Haitian Catholic Community, told OSV News regarding his order's determination to stay in Haiti. "It is our mission to be with them and to try to support them, to accompany them."

On March 4, armed gangs attempted to seize control of Haiti's Toussaint Louverture Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital. The move was believed to be an effort by gangs to oust Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who had traveled to Guyana and then Kenya, with troops from the latter nation set to be deployed as part of a United Nations' peacekeeping mission. Both domestic and international flights were reported to be suspended.

The day prior, Haitian officials declared a 72-hour state of emergency following the mass jailbreak of more than 5,000 inmates from two facilities, who had been freed by gangs attacking a number of state institutions.

The U.S. Embassy urged its citizens to leave Haiti as soon as possible and canceled consular appointments through March 6, saying in a March 3 announcement that "conditions may not allow the U.S. Embassy to admit persons" during that span.

Father Almonor said that he had confirmed his own family, including his father and "other members ... especially my friends in my congregation" -- who have several mission sites in Haiti -- are so far "OK."

"But the situation is so bad," he admitted. "Everywhere in the capital city, (there is) shooting. ... It used to be really in certain sections and now it's kind of the whole city."

Father Thomas Hagan, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales who has lived and worked in Port-au-Prince since 1997, said in a March 3 livestreamed Mass 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.

"All the streets are blocked," Father Hagan said, adding he had just learned of the attempts to seize the airport.

Father Hagan said that gangs are "threatening all sorts of people" and "even want to kidnap me ... but I don't think that'll happen.

"The only thing I worry about (with) kidnapping me is that they won't ask for much ... they could only ask for $25 or something," he said.

He offered the liturgy for a former regular attendee named David, who "two weeks ago ... was kidnapped and murdered."

Also killed was one of the teachers for the priest's nonprofit Hands Together, which provides 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.

Father Hagan said that a number of Haiti's police force have been killed, and "not only killed, but (their bodies) desecrated."

"The number of people being killed and tortured, it's ... horrible," he said.

In July 2023, Father Hagan had brokered a truce among four gang leaders, including Jimmy Cherisier, known as "Barbecue."According to the truce, a digital copy of which Father Hagan had provided to OSV News, signatories "promise 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."

Father Hagan told OSV News at the time that the agreement "could be very fragile" but marked a step in quelling that nation's systemic kidnappings, rapes, killings and widespread civil unrest.

Haiti has endured 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 U.N. 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.

"I mean, today could be the day," Father Hagan said. "Every day, when I say Mass ... I look at the tabernacle and think, 'Maybe today's my day.' And then you don't worry about it."

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

- - - Gina Christian is a multimedia reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @GinaJesseReina.