Vilius Vilsaint lived through a great swath of world history: the invention of the automobile and the airplane, both world wars, a U.S. occupation of his Haitian homeland that began in 1915 and lasted almost 20 years. Florvil Hyppolite, Haiti’s president from 1889 to 1896, was in power when he was born; Michel Martelly held that office on Sunday, the day Vilsaint passed away at Vitas Hospice Center in Fort Lauderdale.
Various family members say Vilsaint was born in 1886. Others say 1892 or 1895, making him anywhere from 117 to 126 years old.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the oldest living person is Jiroemon Kimora, who lives in Japan, and is 115 years and 343 days old.
But without a birth certificate, it was impossible to prove that title should have gone to Vilsaint.
He was born in the northwest Haitian city of Port-de-Paix and made his living as a farmer, just as his father had, on raising yams, plantains, bananas and potatoes. He spent two years in Cuba harvesting sugarcane from a field run by Angel Castro, whose young son Fidel would dash between the stalks. Farming was the way he earned a living. But faith and family were the true center of his life.
“Dad was very, very religious. He memorized the Bible. He never argued with anybody, and he prayed for everybody,” said David Vilsaint, the 16th of Villain’s 21 children, 14 of whom are still living.
Vilsaint was married twice, first to Anastasie Telisma, the mother of eight of his children. In 1949, he married Merceila Azar, and had another 10 children, fathering the last when he was 75. He had another three children with a woman he never married.
His descendants — grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren — number 185, according to family members. Most live in Florida or Haiti.
Vilsaint’s longevity was certainly part genetics. In a 2002 interview with The Miami Herald, he said his father lived to be 110, his mother 100. But a more important factor, he said, was his faith.
“If I hadn’t kept God, I would have been gone a long time [ago],” he said in Creole.
At 103, he left his native Haiti, using his younger brother’s birth certificate to obtain the necessary documents, and settled in South Florida.
Vilsaint lived with different family members, most recently with David and his wife Dina.
Dina recalled that, near the end, her father-in-law would call for his late wife Merceila, David’s mother.
“David asked him, ‘What will you do when you see her?’ He said, ‘I’ll tell her I love her with all my heart.’ Then David said, ‘What else would you do, Dad?’ He replied, ‘Mind your own business. Do I ask what you do with your wife?’” Dina said.
Granddaughter Rutha Wallace, mother to the nearly 2-year-old Rayna, took her little girl to visit Vilsaint when he was in hospice care. She noted that her grandfather loved to sing and described him as “very spiritual and funny, sometimes hilarious.” But she knew when she saw him that he was ready to move on to another life.
“He was ready to see his wife again and the children he had lost,” she says. “He was blind, but he grabbed my hand and my daughter’s. He knew us. And he blessed us.”
Because of Holy Week, the viewing for Vilsaint is scheduled for 6 to 9 p.m. April 5 at Eglise Baptist Bethanie, 2200 NW 12th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. April 6 at the church.