Celestin Muhizi’s life as an educator, father and man of faith spanned his years teaching primary school to children in Rwanda, raising a family of nine with his wife and surviving the 1994 Rwandan genocide that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Celestin Muhizi

He came to the United States last year with hopes of settling down and retiring in the community where his son lived. But Muhizi’s dream ended tragically Sunday evening when a car slammed into a set of bleachers at Deering Oaks where he was sitting and watching a youth baseball game. Muhizi, who had walked to the park from his home on Grant Street in Portland’s Parkside neighborhood, died at the hospital from his injuries.

The driver of the four-door sedan, 29-year-old Jonathan Burt of Lisbon, was arrested by Portland police and has been charged with manslaughter, operating under the influence of drugs, reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon, violating conditions of his release and operating without a license. Burt and a female passenger were treated for drug overdose symptoms following the crash. Burt is being held on $50,000 bail at the Cumberland County Jail and is scheduled to appear in court Jan. 6.

Muhizi’s death has left his family members and Portland community mourning a person they described as kind, gentle and caring.

“He was awesome, caring and a hard-working dad,” his son Jules Evase Mutoni said Wednesday.

Mutoni, who lives in Portland, and his eight siblings were raised by their father and mother, Cesarie Nyirandenge. Mutoni’s four sisters and four brothers are living in Rwanda or France.

Mutoni said his parents came to Maine in May 2019 so that they could attend a grandson’s baptism. Mutoni said his parents expressed an interest in remaining in the United States so he petitioned the U.S. government on their behalf to change their immigration status to permanent resident. Their petitions were approved this month, he said.

“We were planning to apply for a green card,” Mutoni added. Having a green card allows an individual to live and work permanently in the United States.

Muhizi was described by his son as a deeply religious man who enjoyed being around younger people.

“My father loved to go to Deering Oaks park from day one since he arrived and he liked to go there for walking, reading books, as well as watching baseball games,” Mutoni said.

Muhizi was also very well known in Portland’s Rwandan community, as well as at Sacred Heart/St. Dominic Parish Church on Mellen Street, where he was a regular parishioner, his son said. Parishioners received an email Wednesday from the church making them aware of Muhizi’s death.

“Dear parishioners. Some of you may already be aware of the passing of one of our parishioners, Celestin Muhizi. Last Sunday Celestin attended mass at Sacred Heart, had lunch with his family, then took a walk in the neighborhood, pausing at the game at Deering Oaks Park. He was struck by that car that drove erratically through the park and died from his injuries. … Celestin was a gentle, kind person who will be sorely missed by his family and friends,” the note said.

Patrick Gaparayi, Mutoni’s brother-in-law, created a social media campaign on GoFundMe to raise money to help pay for Muhizi’s memorial service. Gaparayi lives in Copenhagen. As of Wednesday evening, the effort had raised nearly $3,000 toward the goal of $5,000.

“He was a very calm person, a very knowledgeable person,” Gaparayi said in a phone interview, referring to Muhizi’s teaching background.

Gaparayi described Muhizi as a curious man, who enjoyed going for long walks and getting fresh air. Muhizi also enjoyed being around children and young people, something Gaparayi attributed to his background as a teacher.

“I’m sure he went (to Deering Oaks) to watch the joy that youth have playing baseball,” he said.

Gaparayi said Muhizi’s death at the hands of an impaired driver was tragic because he survived the genocide in Rwanda and had moved to the United States to retire.

The outpouring of community support on GoFundMe has been heartwarming, Gaparayi said.

Bill and Jeanette Almy of Poland donated $100 to the fundraiser. Bill Almy went to Deering Oaks on Sunday night to watch his grandson play baseball.

“We did not know your father. However, my husband was able to be with him and cradle him, hopefully providing comfort, compassion and support while he sat on the bleachers and waited for the EMTs and ambulance crew to arrive. We just wanted you to know that he was not alone and that we care,” the couple wrote on the fundraising page.

In a telephone interview Wednesday night, Bill Almy said he took his shirt off and wrapped it around Muhizi’s head to stop the bleeding. Almy said he wished he could have done more to help.

“It feels like it wasn’t enough. I’m just devastated by what happened to this man,” Almy said. “I’m not a hero. Comforting him was all that I could do.”

Mutoni said there will be a memorial service for his father. He just doesn’t know when it will be held. His siblings want to attend the funeral, but the siblings living in Rwanda will need to apply for a visa in order to attend.

 

Staff Writer Megan Gray contributed to this report.

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