By Christie L. Chicoine
CS&T Staff Writer
Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father Thomas Hagan, a native of the Philadelphia Archdiocese working in Haiti, survived the massive earthquake there Jan. 12 with minimal scrapes to his head.
The priest runs Hands Together, a non-profit organization devoted to the care of the poor in Haiti.
Father Hagan, 68, was concluding a meeting in his first-floor office in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake hit, according to the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales’ Wilmington-Philadelphia Province.
The most recent correspondence the province received from Father Hagan was via e-mail late last week. “We are all sleeping on the ground and we have set up a base in the land we use for the vehicles,” Father Hagan wrote. “A couple hundred homeless are here each night as well. This morning I was on the second floor of a hotel near the sisters. I thought that I would simply drop in and get some hot coffee and while I was drinking it, another quake happened. It was terrifying. I find the people are in a daze. I am trying hard to keep their spirits up.”
The Hands Together web site further described the plight of the earthquake, which the Haitian government says has claimed more than 150,000 lives and left 3 million injured or homeless.
According to the web site, Father Hagan and a colleague crawled under a sturdy metal table as cement and glass fell around them. Two staff members ran from the building which also serves as residence for a number of the Hands Together staff and volunteers.
One of the staff members returned to help Father Hagan and his colleague escape the crumbling structure.
Other occupants were not as fortunate. After the tremors stopped, the crushed bodies of two Oblate seminarians were found underneath the building. All that remained of the structure had been reduced to rubble.
After digging through the rubble throughout the night, the organization’s members successfully freed two volunteers.
They took them to the nearby Missionaries of Charity facility, which had sustained less substantial damage.
Meanwhile, people filled the streets, crying, shaking and traumatized.
Father Hagan and his staff and volunteers spent the night on the road outside the crumbled center.
The next day, they collected bottled water and rice from the ruins of the mission center. The staff doctor treated the sick and injured as other staff members distributed rice and water.
That same day, Nelson – the staff member who had rescued Father Hagan and a colleague – drove to his neighborhood, stopped on a side street then pointed to a pile of cement rubble and said, “There is my 3-year-old daughter and her mother. They are dead.”
Driving through Port-au-Prince, the staff passed hundreds of collapsed buildings: schools, hotels, markets, houses, government buildings and churches. Dead bodies lined the streets and fell from buildings as people searched the rubble to attempt to rescue the living.
Founded in 1986, Hands Together, headquartered in Springfield, Mass. in the Diocese of Springfield, establishes schools, orphanages, nutrition and feeding programs, clean-water projects, medical clinics, sustainable-development projects and partnerships with local leaders and communities to help the needy people of Haiti.
A priest of the Oblates’ Wilmington-Philadelphia Province, Father Hagan graduated from St. Matthew School in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia in 1955 and from Father Judge High School for Boys in the Holmesburg section of the city in 1959.
At press time, Father Judge High had collected nearly $6,500 for Hands Together from faculty, staff, alumni and students. For one minute during homeroom on Jan. 20, students were asked to donate what they could during what was dubbed the “Miracle Minute.” That effort alone raised nearly $700.
Father Hagan taught theology and moderated the Community Service Corps at Northeast Catholic High School for Boys in the Frankford section of the city in the 1970s. At press time, students, faculty and staff at North Catholic had collected more than $1,000 for Hands Together. An appeal has also been made to alumni, friends and other benefactors via the school’s web site.
Make a donation to Hands Together, P.O. Box 80985, Springfield, MA 01138 or make an electronic payment via the web site handstogether.org.
For more information, call Hands Together at 413-731-7716.