St. Joseph the Worker parishioners navigate troubled waters in Haiti

| January 25, 2018 | 0 Comments

Haitians carry Father Don Piché from a flooded creek after the vehicle he was in got swamped trying to cross it on its way to Bouzy, Haiti. Photos courtesy St. Joseph the Worker

It was supposed to be a mindless maneuver for four members of St. Joseph the Worker in Maple Grove and their retired pastor, Father Don Piché, during a mission trip to Haiti in November.

Instead, it ended up being a horrific scare that some of them believed could have taken their lives.

Twice a year, the parish sends members to serve at their sister parish, St. Catherine d’ Alexandre in Bouzy, Haiti. The purpose of the annual fall trip is simply to build friendships and attend Mass with the Haitian people.
A group consisting of Michelle Bartley, Jill Kitterman, Dan Koshiol, Hieu Tu and Father Piché was heading back to Bouzy after attending Mass in Duverger, a nearby village. Three local Haitians joined them. They had one last creek to cross before entering the town.

But, by the time they reached the crossing around 1:30 p.m., the creek their SUV had easily crossed on the way there looked vastly different. A warning sign came during the Mass, when they all noticed raindrops starting to fall.

“It started raining during the Mass, and then it rained hard during the Mass,” said Bartley, 57. “After the Mass, we stayed and visited a little while, so it was probably about an hour-and-a-half after it started raining that we got back to the creek.”

The driver, a Haitian named Marco, decided to risk crossing, even though the creek was wider, deeper and faster than it had been when the group had crossed earlier.

His gamble failed miserably. Just seconds after the wheels touched water, the SUV got swamped, with water pouring in and causing pressure that made the doors nearly impossible to open. As the rushing water picked up the vehicle and turned it sideways, the eight passengers scrambled for their lives, with the creek rising quickly.

“Within seconds, I remember feeling it [water] at my ankles,” Kitterman said. “Literally, seconds later, it was up to my shoulders.”

It was time for action. The back end where Kitterman and Bartley were seated had dropped. Marco got his door open and scrambled outside, where he quickly started helping the others escape.

Kitterman and Bartley figured they would be the last ones out, as they were in the third row of the vehicle and needed others to exit before they could climb forward to the next row and the door.

They prayed a Hail Mary and held fast to their faith.

“I was thinking, ‘This is not the way it [life] is going to end for me,’” said Kitterman, 51. “You think about just surviving.”

As their minds raced, the two women heard the faint words of Father Piché in the front seat.

“Father Don was in the front seat saying, ‘I’m ready if this is it.’ I heard him say that,” Bartley said. “We all remember it.”

Father Piché expressed the least fear, yet he was the most vulnerable, both because of his age, 66, and a disability that limits the use of his right side.

This disability came close to costing him his life. After insisting that everyone else exit first, he was the last person in the vehicle, along with Koshiol, who ushered the women out the door, then waited to help Father Piché, who was in the passenger side.

Because of the current pushing on the passenger door, Koshiol needed to get the priest to the other side of the vehicle. That proved to be a struggle, as his braced left leg got stuck on the shift lever. Finally, Father Piché got free and made his move out the door.

But, he was not prepared for the strength of the current, which instantly swept his feet off the bottom and threatened to carry him away. All he had was a grip on the door with his good hand. “I have arthritis in this thumb,” Father Piché said. “I was losing grip. Another couple of seconds, I would have been down the river.”

Koshiol acted quickly to jump to the priest’s rescue and wrap his arms around him in a tight bear hug. The two slowly made their way toward shore, with the water getting shallower and Marco coming out to help them make their finals steps to shore and safety.

Members of St. Joseph the Worker in Maple Grove who made the trip to Haiti, second from left, Jill Kitterman, Hieu Tu, Dan Koshiol, Michelle Bartley and Father Piché (back), pose with two of their Haitian hosts.

The five Minnesotans remember the scene at the crossing just as they were making their way to shore. Dozens of Haitians who had come upon them rushed to their aid. Young men sprang from their vehicles and into the water to help them without uttering a single word.

The ordeal lasted less than five minutes, but the impact likely will last forever, they all believe. The five gave a presentation at their parish Jan. 18 describing their experiences, and they all carry the imprint of not just a harrowing near-tragedy in the water, but of the Haitian people who embraced them during their visit.

“I do think about them every day. They’re so beautiful,” Kitterman said. “They really are our family. They are our faith family. They’re not blood, but they’re our faith family.”

Tu, 32, marveled at the elderly woman who gave him her flip flops after she noticed he was barefoot as a result of losing his shoes in the river. He calls her his “flip flop angel.” He said the love he felt from the Haitians helped deepen his understanding of God’s love for him.

There’s also a deeper message about what it means to live under harsh conditions without access to resources Americans use and take for granted: 911 and AAA, for example.

“The reality is we’re close to death all the time. The thing is, we [Americans] isolate ourselves from the reality of it,” Father Piché said. Meanwhile, Haitians “live with this every day, in terms of life and death. They’re aware of it. They’re more aware of it than we are.”

Kitterman called the river incident “the most tragic but wonderful experience I’ve ever had in my entire life because of the gifts that we got from it.

The SUV is partially submerged after its occupants made a successful escape.

“Yeah, there was a lot of fear and maybe a little bit of panic and some uncertainty there for about three to four minutes of what had transpired,” she said. “But, it was the gifts that we got, the love and compassion. Their love and compassion and faith in God is so immeasurable.”

The parish has made a 50-year commitment to support its sister parish, with which it began a relationship in 2009. The next trip will be in March, when a medical team will provide health care for the community.

“That experience in the water, in the river, was the catalyst for me understanding what relationship was,” said Koshiol, 60. “I realized that I saw the face of God in each one of these people. And, I was willing to give my life for them.”

The experience also created a bond among the five people from St. Joseph, who continue to get together to talk about their harrowing escape from the raging waters in Bouzy. “We went out to Haiti as teammates,” Tu said, “but we came home family.”

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