Lahens Lee-St. Fleur M'05 and Father Rick Frechette at the Opus Prize 2013 celebration.
The Opus Prize held a special significance for one St. Catherine employee and alumnus.
By Andy Steiner
When Lahens Lee-St. Fleur M'05 met Father Rick Frechette, he knew he was in the presence of someone holy.
"It's the only way I can explain how I felt," Lee-St. Fleur says now. Father Rick's holiness is "in the way he treats people, in the way he cares and sacrifices. When you are near him, it's almost like holiness is in the air."
One of three Opus Prize finalists in 2012, Father Rick was awarded the $1 million prize at the ceremony on November 8 at St. Catherine University.
Lee-St. Fleur first met the distinguished priest in spring 2012, when he was part of a due-diligence team sponsored by the University and the Opus Prize Foundation that traveled to the island nation to observe the work of St. Luke Foundation for Haiti, a massive organization that provides healthcare, education and humanitarian outreach to more than 150,000 people each year. Assisted by a group of young Haitian leaders, Father Rick founded St. Luke Foundation in 2001. The organization now employs more than 800 Haitians.
Lee-St. Fleur, St. Catherine's event logistics coordinator, was born in Haiti and lived there until he was 11 years old. He knows firsthand how hard life is for many Haitians. Both of his parents died when he was just 6 years old. His impoverished grandmother cared for him for a time until she brought him to an orphanage.
He first traveled to the United States as part of a dance troupe, meeting St. Catherine President Andrea Lee, IHM, then president of Marygrove College in Detroit. When doctors discovered that Lee-St. Fleur had a serious heart condition, Sister Andrea fought for him to come to the United States for treatment. She became Lee-St. Fleur's foster mother and later — in March 2000 — his adoptive mother.
Lee-St. Fleur and Sister Andrea share a special love for Haiti, so when it was announced that a Haitian organization was among the finalists for the Opus Prize, they were overjoyed.
"When we started the Opus process, my mom and I truly hoped that one of the finalists would be from the Caribbean," Lee-St. Fleur says. Sister Andrea helped select due-diligence team members from among faculty, students and staff at the University; her son, with his personal history on the island, seemed like a logical choice for the team.
Though anxious and awestruck by the opportunity, Lee-St. Fleur gladly accepted the opportunity to travel to Haiti and observe Father Rick's work. It was his first time back to his homeland, almost 16 years to the day since he left.
Returning to Haiti was an emotional experience for Lee-St. Fleur, who says he saw himself in the poor children who asked for money.
"That was me 16 years ago," he says, adding that he also thought about his two young sons and the impact his own history has had on their middle-class American upbringing. "If I'm being honest, I will tell you that I try not to feel guilty about being able to leave Haiti to live in the United States. But the question I still keep asking myself is, 'Why me? Why did I get to leave while others have to live through the devastation?' What does God want from me?"
Sometimes Lee-St. Fleur thinks that meeting Father Rick was divine intervention. "Maybe being able to go on the due-diligence trip and then meeting Father Rick when he came to St. Kate's for the award ceremony was an opportunity for me to help form a partnership between St. Luke Foundation and St. Kate's," he says. "I do know that the experience has me asking, 'What else can I do to help the Haitian people?'" He returned to Haiti this winter to visit Father Rick.
An accomplished dancer, Lee-St. Fleur was asked to choreograph a set of three dances for the final ceremony, one honoring each of the nominees. As he threw himself into the project, he found it harder to see who should get the $1 million prize (the other two prizes are $100,000 each).
Even though he was "thrilled" that Father Rick and St. Luke Foundation for Haiti won the $1 million prize, Lee-St. Fleur wishes the result could have been different.
"All three of the nominees are so deserving," he says. "The work they do is incredibly important. If I had the money, all three nominees would get a million dollars each. They are all award winners in my heart."