New York priest returns to his parishes after harrowing trip to his native Haiti

Father Lucon Rigaud, pastor of Holy Innocents Parish in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Bishop Robert J. Brennan of Brooklyn, are pictured helping distribute frozen turkeys and other food outside the church Nov. 21, 2022. Father Rigaud returned to his parish March 22 after being trapped in his native Haiti amid violence and instability. He had traveled to the Caribbean nation Feb. 17, 2024, to attend the funeral of his father in the southeastern city of Les Cayes. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

(OSV News) -- A Brooklyn, New York, priest is now back at his parish after a harrowing trip to his native Haiti -- one that saw his return delayed by that nation's chaotic gang violence.

Father Lucon Rigaud, pastor of Holy Innocents Parish and Our Lady of Ransom Parish in Brooklyn's Flatbush section, traveled to the Caribbean nation Feb. 17 to attend the funeral of his father in the southeastern city of Les Cayes.

Even there, more than 120 miles from Haiti's besieged capital of Port-au-Prince, the ravages of gang warfare could be felt -- and his father was in a very real sense a direct victim, Father Rigaud told OSV News.

"My father presumably died because of a lack of oxygen," he said, citing the numerous roadblocks installed on the nation's roads by warring factions. "There was no way to get him to the hospital."

After some "12 hours without oxygen," his father succumbed to lung damage and died, Father Rigaud said.

"His case is not unique," said the priest. "It happens to so many people down there, including -- but not limited to -- pregnant women and people who are sick. They can't go to the hospital, and even if you go to the hospital, we have no staff in the hospital. The problem is horrible, with all the roadblocks."

An estimated 80% of Port-au-Prince is currently under the control of armed gangs, a number of which have been targeting state institutions, including prisons, police stations and the main international airport. The attacks were believed to be an effort 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 now-paused United Nations peacekeeping mission. At least 4,000 inmates were freed by gangs, while scores of Haitians have been reported killed and some 17,000 left homeless.

On March 11, Henry announced his resignation; one week earlier, the U.S. Embassy began urging its citizens to leave Haiti as soon as possible, while the U.N. has relocated some non-essential staff to the neighboring Dominican Republic.

In February, Haitian Bishop Pierre-André Dumas of Anse-à-Veau and Miragoane sustained severe burns over most of his body in what may have been a deliberately set explosion. The injured bishop is now receiving treatment at a Miami-area hospital, where he is "making progress," Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski recently told OSV News.

Amid the violence, 4 million in Haiti are facing "acute food insecurity," warned U.N. World Food Program director Jean-Martin Bauer March 12.

Father Rigaud likened Port-au-Prince to a "cancer" that is metastasizing and threatening the health of the entire nation.

"Everything comes from Port-au-Prince," Father Rigaud said. "Everyone is dying right and left because of the lack of basic needs."

While "the violence is not that much in other (Haitian) cities," but "with Port-au-Prince, we have all the drama that you hear (about in the news)," he said.

The capital is home to three ports -- APN Port, Terminal Varreux and Port Lafito -- that handle the majority of cargo arriving into Haiti, which is heavily dependent on imports for basic goods such as food and medical supplies. In addition, two fuel terminals are close to the capital.

Port-au-Prince is "the main entry port for everything," said Father Rigaud. "Everything has to go through it."

And that would have included Father Rigaud himself when he sought to return to his parishes after his father's funeral -- until gangs attempted to seize control of the city's international airport March 4, leading to a shutdown of the airport that remains in place.

Stranded, Father Rigaud managed to keep in touch with his parishioners remotely.

"I had a Zoom account," he said. "I began to host meetings to manage my parishes. I was having staff meetings online; I met with my pastoral councils."

Back in New York, Bishop Robert J. Brennan of Brooklyn presided over a March 18 Mass for peace at Holy Innocents, assisted by priests of the diocese's Haitian apostolate. In his homily the bishop shared he had been in contact with Father Rigaud, who joined the liturgy by livestream.

"He is safe ... but he can't get to the capital," said Bishop Brennan at that Mass. "Even if there were planes taking off, he can't get to the airport."

Reaching the country's second-largest airport in the northern city of Cap-Haitien was even less likely, with the highway patrolled by armed gangs and the U.S. Embassy in Haiti warning that the overland trip was "dangerous."

In the end, Father Rigaud -- who first came to the U.S. in 2008 and is a citizen -- journeyed for three days to get back to his parishes.

"It wasn't an easy way out, but God is good," he told OSV News.

He managed to get an overland ride to Haiti's city of Jacmel, and from there he flew -- via helicopter -- to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

"It was a scary ride," he admitted. "We had to land in Santo Domingo, and we had no (official) access to go over there. But having a U.S. passport gave me the right to exit. We had to go to ... the immigration staff (in the Dominican Republic)."

Father Rigaud then flew from Santo Domingo to Miami, and from there to New York, where he landed on March 22.

Despite the vortex of violence in Haiti, the island nation -- which features stunning beaches, waterfalls and forests -- is still "home sweet home," he said, especially since the rest of his family is there.

"Those who are fighting, they're not really Haitians," said Father Rigaud. "They are those who use the country for their own gains, not really seeing the country (as it could be)."


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