The Exceptional Story of the First US Priest to Die From Covid-19

New Advent website linked to this story in the New York Times. With all the news accounts of priests who have died (87 as of today) from the coronavirus it didn’t strike me as a surprise that there would be victims among the clergy in the U.S. Nevertheless, I was very much moved by the case of Father Jorge Ortiz-Garay. 

On the feastday of Saint Joseph he offered Mass in an empty church in his Brooklyn NY parish of Saint Brigit. He streamlined the Mass and sermon for his flock. He wanted to assure them   that he was alright, to trust in God and not to be afraid. Indeed, he said, this epidemic gives us an opportunity to become closer to God.

“There’s no better time than this time of trials, this time of challenges, to fulfill our call to holiness,” said Father Jorge, “At these moments of trial and crisis, at these times when maybe we are asking what will happen to us, trust in the Father.”

But eight days later Father Jorge died at Wyckoff Hospital Medical Center in Brooklyn. He was the first priest in this country to die from the coronavirus. He was 49.

Father Jorge Ortiz-Garay was ready to die, He was, as his parishioners say, a good priest. The saddest thing about this loss is that his faithful friends could not visit him, get his last blessing, and say goodbye. No, not even his surviving parents could see him. Their pastor died, as do all the victims who succumbed to this virus, alone. [I speak, of course, of earthly consolation. We know that in our last moments, if we have been faithful to Jesus and Mary, that they and Saint Joseph will be with us at the hour of death.] Nor will there be a public funeral for Father Jorge. Funerals are not allowed during this quarantine.

Our pastor had served Saint Brigit’s for six years. He was particularly active with the Latino community and the Mexicans, having been born and raised in Mexico. Brooklyn and Queens have been hit harder than the other boroughs of NYC.  53% of the deaths from Covid-19 are from these two boroughs. And they are poor.

“A lot of people here have jobs where they cannot do their work from home on a computer,” said Father Vincenzo Cardilicchia, a parish priest in Bushwick who was a friend of Father Jorge’s.

“People here live on top of each other. This is not Long Island or Staten Island or New Jersey, where you have a lot of space and a yard in front of your house.” Bushwick is a neighborhood in Brooklyn where rents are outrageously high for poor people.

Father Cardilicchia said that Father Jorge loved to walk around Bushwick, preaching to the poor workers and anointing them with ashes on Ash Wednesday. He was their advocate religiously and socially. Many had to work on Sunday so he would go to their homes to bless them and their apartments. “All people do in this city is just work, work, work, so he would go to the homes and bless their homes.”

Father Jorge Ortiz-Garay was born into a wealthy family in Mexico City. He became a  lawyer and was engaged to be married. Then, he felt a calling to the priesthood and left his fiancee and his law practice. He studied in Italy and afterwards in a seminary in Newark, NJ. He was ordained in 2004.

Before there were public health restrictions, the parish office at St. Brigid’s was often a hive of activity, Father Dutan, a young priest and curate at Saint Brigit’s, said. People stopped by for any reason: spiritual advice, marriage counseling or just a social call.

“Each December, Father Jorge organized a mass on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe that drew thousands of people,” said Father Dutan. And well it might. “[The parish] is Ecuadorean, Mexican and Dominican, and a little Puerto Rican and Colombian and Salvadoran and Nicaraguan too,” Father Dutan said. “It is a little bit of all of South America. We have parishioners from everywhere here.” Last year 3000 people attended the torch-lit procession through the streets of Brooklyn and Queens.

Father Dutan said that Father Jorge began to feel ill after Mass on March 19. He had had bouts with bronchitis and was young, so there was no worry. But by Monday, five days later, his fever was worse and he was having problems breathing. He asked Father Dutan take him to the hospital. Father called an ambulance. This was the last time Father Dutan saw the pastor. He was not allowed to ride in the ambulance nor could he see him in the hospital.

Father Jorge was able, however, to text his friends. The night before he died he asked Father Dutan for prayers. He knew he was dying. “‘No, Father, you have to fight,’” Father Dutan objected. “He said to me, ‘Don’t worry, I am happy. I am not scared because I know the Lord is with me.’ Those were his last words to me. They were very consoling.”

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn eulogized him as “a great missionary among us.”

The NY Times article by Liam Stack (with pictures) can be read here.

RIP Father Jorge Ortiz-Garay