‘Visionary’ pastor led flock, wider community since 60s

(Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the Boston Haitian Reporter in 2011, when Pastor Verdieu Laroche— then 71— was honored by the paper as a pioneer in the Haitian community. Pastor LaRoche died on May 5 at age 78.)

He arrived here in 1968 and stepped off a plane to find a lonely Logan Airport and a city on edge.

Verdieu Laroche could have chosen just about any place in the United States to seek an escape from his native Haiti, where the fields of his parents’ home— Caesse, a neighborhood just south of the northern town of Au Trou Du Nord— offered little in the way of hope.

That night, while the 28 year-old Laroche walked through the Logan terminal to a fate still unknown, he carried few belongings. He’d left his wife, Marie Rose, and their two young boys, behind until he got a toe-hold in this strange place. He had an address for his sister-in-law, who’d settled in a Dorchester home two years earlier. She had helped him line up a job — starting the next morning— in the Keystone camera factory on the banks of the Neponset River.

And, of course, he had his Bible.

Like nearly every Haitian migrant of his generation, Laroche was likely more educated than many of the people he worked for in the Boston factories of the era. He’d graduated from a Haitian seminary — the Northern Haiti Theological Seminary— four years before. But, Haiti’s economy had plunged in the latter days of Papa Doc and his own future there— politically— was tenuous.

“The main thrust as to why people left Haiti then was that the economy was bad. You would either go to Miami, New York, or maybe Boston,” recalls his son, Rev. Donald Laroche. “One of things I admired most about my dad- watching him all these years- is that when he came to Boston in 1968 the Haitian community was so small that everybody literally knew each other.”

Within a year, Laroche had turned a fledgling prayer group of about 20 people who met in living rooms across Greater Boston into the region’s first Haitian Protestant congregation— which became known at first as the L’Eglise Baptiste d’Expression Française de Boston (The French Speaking Baptist Church of Boston).

Rev. Dr. Soliny Védrine, Pastor of the Boston Missionary Baptist Church, says that its entirely fitting that Laroche has been chosen among the first group of Boston Haitian pioneers.

“He has patiently worked with the members of that original prayer group to see the church develop over the years to the point it is today,” Rev. Soliny told the Reporter this week. “He doesn’t mind” that many of his original congregants later spun off their own churches across the New England region and beyond. “He is very cooperating. He is glad that people are in the Kingdom of God.”

In 1970, with his young family now reunited in Boston, Laroche landed a steady job with First National Bank of Boston— a job that he’d keep until he took an early retirement in the mid-1990s. When he wasn’t occupied with his day job, Laroche’s evenings and weekends were filled with the mission of building the city’s first Baptist church for the Haitian community.

In May 1969, with the help of the Berea Seventh Day Adventist Church on Seaver Street, Laroche had arranged the first worship space for what is today called the First Haitian Baptist Church. In 1975, his flock swelling, Laroche and the church moved into a storefront church on Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan, before purchasing their current building— a former Jewish synagogue at 397 Blue Hill Avenue near Grove Hall— in 1978 for $30,000.

“Every [Haitian] Protestant church in Boston has found its roots in one shape or another through First Haitian Baptist Church. My dad has really led that effort,” said Rev. Donald Laroche.

And Pastor Laroche did not restrict his pionerring efforts to the city of Boston.

“One of my father’s leadership qualities has been— along with his close buddy in New York to start this network of churches,” said Donald Laroche. “We traveled throughout the year all over the Northeast- including Montreal- and a number of churches that have joined the Southern Baptist church have done so through his efforts.”

For his part, Pastor Laroche— now 71 years old—marvel at the growth and the accomplishments of the Haitian community locally, although he constantly frets about their need to “keep discipline, the morality.”

“They have to keep the line,” said Pastor Laroche. “I’ve tried to teach them the good way to live- the Bible. I preach every day. The church in Boston is very successful.”

Along with his wife of 27 years— Marie Rose — and his three adult children —Verdy, Whitney and Donald— Laroche remains committed to his Boston congregation. But, the latter days of his pastoral career have followed a circle back to where things truly began for him spiritually: to his hometown in the north of Haiti.

“We do appreciate the fight he never forgets: the homeland,” said Rev. Vedrine. “Over recent years he has been very much involved in mission work. That’s an inspiration to all of us. We can be so happy with what we’re doing here to limit our attention. He reminds us of our duty to remember the homeland.”

After his retirement from the bank, Laroche launched a new church in Caesse and an organization — North Haiti Mission— to support the effort and care for the needy. It is a project that brings him back to Haiti as often as four times a year— sometimes for weeks at a time.

“I feel very proud to give back to my home country. It’s a blessing from the Lord because in Haiti right now, we are helping more than 700 children. We provide food for them in this little village.”

“That is where his heart is,” says his son Donald, who serves as an assistant pastor at the Boston church, holding down the fort while his dad helps to manage efforts in Haiti. “That’s what he encourages every Haitian in the diaspora to do: Go back to their roots, their home villages and help out where you have the most impact. My dad’s a visionary.”