St. Rock Haiti gala honors Father Peter Casey, highlights country's plight

QUINCY -- Gabe Bresnahan was 14 years old when he first saw a child being born.

He was in the community of St. Rock, Haiti, where he and his father, Dr. Stephen Bresnahan, would often volunteer with the St. Rock Haiti Foundation. The SRHF was founded in 2002 to provide healthcare, education, job training, food, clean water, and economic opportunity to the people of St. Rock. While in Haiti, Gabe befriended Father Peter Casey, then-pastor of St. Agatha Parish in Milton, who also regularly volunteered in Haiti with the foundation.

Dr. Bresnahan frequently called Gabe to watch him and the other doctors at work, hoping that it would inspire his son to enter the medical field, and this time was no exception. Gabe and Father Casey went to the delivery room and silently watched as Dr. Jean Kenes Eloy, the foundation's medical and in-country director, delivered a baby.

"When all was said and done, I had the privilege of watching Father Casey help bring and bless a new life into this world," Gabe remembered at a gala dinner celebrating the SRHF and Father Casey's work in Haiti. "I believe it was a new experience for the both of us, and I'm not sure who walked away more traumatized. But it was beautiful. Coincidentally, that was the same day I decided that I would not be pursuing healthcare."

The gala, which took place on April 10 at the Granite Links Golf Club in Quincy, raised over $600,000 for the foundation and presented Father Casey with the Dr. Stephen Bresnahan Award. Following Dr. Bresnahan's death in 2019, the foundation has given the award annually to those who support its mission of economic and social development in Haiti. Those who spoke at the gala gave urgent calls to support the people of Haiti as their nation faces historic turmoil.

"Together, we are called to truly bring peace and healing," Father Casey, who is now a senior priest in residence at Divine Mercy Parish in Quincy, said in his remarks. "And let that be our prayer this evening, that we pray, yes for ourselves, but also for our brothers and sisters in Haiti."

Father Casey volunteered in Haiti annually for over a decade, starting in 2006. He said that he would not be receiving the award if not for Catherine Liberles, a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital. In 2003, Liberles began organizing annual volunteer trips to Haiti with her fellow nurses and parishioners from St. Agatha's. One day after Mass, Liberles approached Father Casey and asked him if he would like to come to Haiti.

"I said 'Yes,'" Father Casey said. "I had no idea what I was getting into."

When he first arrived in Haiti, the country's natural scenery alone was breathtaking to him.

"I have so many memories," he said. "I could keep you here all evening, but I'm not going to."

His most cherished memories are of seeing Dr. Bresnahan at work. Father Casey was already close with Dr. Bresnahan and his family because they attended Mass at St. Agatha's regularly.

"He treated each person who came in to see him with dignity and compassion," Father Casey said of Dr. Bresnahan. "No question about it, Dr. Steve Bresnahan used the gift that God gave to him. Steve, a man who indeed was gentle, compassionate, and treated each person as if he or she was a unique creation."

After Father Casey gave his remarks, SRHF President and CEO Jocelyn Bresnahan, Dr. Bresnahan's wife, described the dire situation facing Haiti. The country's government and infrastructure have been crippled by violent gangs who control much of the country. Thousands of citizens have been raped, murdered, injured, or kidnapped in the widespread violence. Over four million people -- almost half of Haiti's population -- don't have enough to eat. In Haiti's capital city of Port-au-Prince, the airport and seaports are inaccessible, effectively isolating the country from the rest of the world. Less than half of Port-au-Prince's healthcare facilities are operating, and only two provide surgery. Many schools have closed, depriving children of an education.

"Tonight, we stand in solidarity with Haiti," said Jocelyn, "and as I look out over this room, I see the most profound symbol of solidarity, compassion, and generosity."

During a recent SRHF staff meeting, Jocelyn was struck by the fear and exhaustion on people's faces, as well as the resolve in their voices. She described them as "continuing to serve the people in their communities, despite being in the midst of warfare."

One young man named Robinson spoke during the meeting. When Robinson was barely a teenager, he would walk several miles to the SRHF clinic with two fresh eggs, exchanging them for conversations to help him learn English.

"He was hungry to learn and wanted to attend school," Jocelyn said, "but his family could not afford to send him. Through his incredible determination and the support of the foundation, he completed his primary education and high school."

Robinson graduated from college with a business degree and is now part of the SRHF administrative leadership team. At the meeting, he quietly said to Jocelyn and the others: "Please don't forget about us."

"I reassured him that we will never forget about him or the others," Jocelyn said.

In his remarks, Dr. Kenes Eloy said that the entire Haitian nation, including its diaspora overseas, "is fraught with political unrest, violence, anger, and displacement."

"These are not mere statistics or distant headlines," he said. "They are the harsh realities that our communities confront every day. However, amidst these difficult circumstances, I stand before you tonight as a testament to the power of partnership."

He said that thanks to the SRHF, 900 students from kindergarten to high school are receiving temporary education. The foundation is almost done building a primary school. One hundred sixty young people have been able to go to college or vocational training through the foundation, and 75 of them have graduated. They work as foundation employees, doctors, dentists, nurses, teachers, and administrators. Almost 60 percent of them are women. Dr. Kenes Eloy called them "the future of Haiti." The foundation has also provided jobs to 125 people, keeping young men out of gangs.

Calling those who attended the gala to action, Dr. Kenes Eloy noted that Boston has the third-largest Haitian community in the U.S.

"You have the knowledge, you have the resources, and the love of Haiti to help rebuild our country," he said. "With determination, you can play a critical role in what's happening next. I implore you to organize more enduring forces. Please let us forge ahead with determination and compassion."