Memorial Mass in Ozone Park for the first Catholic priest in the U.S. to die of coronavirus
OZONE PARK — ¡Ánimo, el Señor es bueno!
That Spanish phrase — Cheer up, friends, God is Good! — were words that members of the diocese’s Mexican ministry said perfectly summarized their beloved priest, friend, and leader, the late Father Jorge Ortiz-Garay, who died March 27 as a result of COVID-19. Father Jorge used the phrase as a personal motto.
“There’s always that void of not having Father here, but I know that now we have a little angel watching over us,” said Edith Areizaga, a member of the Mexican ministry for more than 5 years. “It was so nice watching the parish today, it’s so iconic of Father Jorge. He would always fill the catechesis that he would hold. It was always packed. … Today is very surreal.”
On Oct. 16, members of the Mexican ministry gathered for the first time since the start of the pandemic lockdowns at St. Mary Gate of Heaven in Ozone Park. The gathering marked a special day for the community.
That’s because, on the day of their late leader’s 50th birthday, a Memorial Mass celebrated his life and the seeds of faith that were a trademark of his trust in God. At the Mass, Hispanic cultural symbols were evident: the celebrant, Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros, wore a vestment showcasing Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, or Our Lady of Guadalupe, who, with her mestiza complexion is a powerful symbol associated with Mexican identity and faith.
A mariachi band led the musical portion of the liturgy. A group of young musicians dressed in head-to-toe traditional black charro attire carried guitars, violins and trumpets brought an upbeat yet traditional sound to the somber, reflective Mass. Mariachi music is often present at important events and celebrations in the lives of the Latino community.
Throughout his honest and impassioned homily, Bishop Cisneros spoke to the heart of the matter. He reminded the faithful that even though they were mourning Father Jorge’s passing, that their hope can be found in the Eucharist.
“God’s ways are mysterious,” he said. “And those are the tests that He gives us. How is it that we respond to those paths that we cannot decipher? How do we respond to those challenges? With faith, with joy, with a strong sacramental life, in the union, in the common union… the communion.”
He continued speaking with a theme of overcoming struggles and pains together as a community of faith. At one point during Mass, he stared intently and silently at the black and white photo of Father Ortiz that was placed in front of the altar.
“A good priest… until death,” he said. “God willing, they will say those words about me too when I meet the Lord. That all of us can say, ‘I have been who I am.’ That already explains what priesthood, ministry, dedication, being Christ to others, being a father to everyone meant for Father Jorge.”
Carrying the torch to lead the Mexican ministry is Father Baltazar Sánchez Alonzo who said that since he started working with the ministry after Father Ortiz’s passing, that the members have helped him become a better leader, especially during this time of mourning for them.
“My hope is to continue building what Jorge has done,” Father Alonzo said. “I know he gave his whole life for this ministry to accompany the Mexican community to recognize the greatness of María of Guadalupe.”
He said that while he recognizes the community’s pain and their sadness without Father Ortiz, there is this desire within them to continue.
“I can perceive in the Mexican community that they are suffering his departure, but at the same time, there is a lot of hope,” Father Sánchez said. “They are very courageous people, they want to continue working and are encouraging me.”
At the end of Mass, the priest who served alongside Father Ortiz at St. Brigid’s Church in Bushwick, smiled and greeted members of the Guadalupaños. Behind Father Joseph Dutan’s warm and welcoming presence, was someone who had to recently say goodbye to two close figures in his life — his father and the late pastor of their church. While speaking about the two, even though his voice grew shaky, Father Dutan seemed to power through with words reminiscent of Father Jorge himself — with an unwavering trust in the Lord.
He said the last text messages he received from his brother-priest were always selfless and more concerned about the well-being of others, not his own while battling coronavirus.
“Father Jorge didn’t doubt the Lord not once, even to the point of his final breath, his final moments,” said Father Dutan. “He said ‘I know I’m in a good place, I know I will celebrate Easter with the Lord.’ ”