WINDSOR TERRACE — Father Jorge Ortiz-Garay, a Mexican-born Brooklyn pastor, became the first priest in the United States to die as a result of COVID-19. He was the pastor of St. Brigid’s parish, located in Wyckoff Heights, and the Diocesan Coordinator of the Ministry to Mexican immigrants.
Father Ortiz died on the evening of Friday, March 27, at Wyckoff Hospital Medical Center in Brooklyn from complications related to coronavirus. He was 49 years old.
“It is very sad for the diocese, and for myself personally,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, Bishop of Brooklyn, said. “He was one of our priests, and I was someone who was considered a friend. I’m a friend of all the priests, but to him in particular, since we worked together in establishing the Mexican Apostolate.”
“It’s a terrible loss, it is hard to believe,” the bishop said. “So it is a very hard thing for all of us. He was so young, so vibrant.”
“He was always happy, always smiling, took his work with great joy. And he suffered a lot too. There were times when he had difficult situations in his pastoral work, but in all circumstances, he was happy as he could be. He struggled and he suffered, but he made it work,” Bishop DiMarzio added.
“He was not happy-go-lucky, he understood his mission as a priest, that suffering is part of the priestly ministry, but he brought this special joy through it all.”
Father Ortiz-Garay was born on October 16, 1970, in Mexico City. He became a practicing lawyer and was engaged to a young woman whom he was planning to marry.
In 1996, while he was participating in a vocational meeting organized by the Neocatechumenal Way, he felt the call to the priesthood: he left his fiancée, his law practice, and his wealthy father and went to the Redemptoris Mater Seminary of Newark.
He was ordained to the Priesthood at the Archdiocese of Newark as a member of the Neocatechumenal Way on May 29, 2004.
He has worked at the Diocese of Brooklyn since 2009 and first ministered at St. Joseph’s in Prospect Heights while also serving as the chaplain for the mission Ad Gentes in Brooklyn.
In 2014, he began serving as an administrator at St. Brigid’s and on July 13, 2019, was installed as pastor.
Msgr. Kieran E. Harrington, vicar of communications for the Diocese of Brooklyn and president and chairman of DeSales Media Group, The Tablet’s parent company, knew him very well. Father Jorge, as he was known, was Msgr. Harrington’s assistant at St. Joseph Co-Cathedral.
“He was a person of great humility. He came from a wealthy family, but you would never know that when you meet him,” he said.
“He came to St. Joseph in 2009. There was not much of a parish here back then. He did a wonderful job reaching out to the Hispanic community, but also to other groups,” Msgr. Harrington said. “He knew the Hispanic community couldn’t contribute financially to the renovation of the church, but he rallied them to refurbish all the pews. It was a great contribution.”
“In the painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the ceiling of St. Joseph Co-Cathedral, you can see his face, because the artist used his likeness for St. Juan Diego,” he added. “Anyone who knows Father Jorge, knows that he would always say ‘ánimo’ (courage) to everybody,” said Msgr. Harrington, talking in the present tense about his friend.
“If a person was sick or had difficulties in their marriage, he would tell them, ‘ánimo.’ That word modeled his life.”
“When he was in the hospital, he was scared because he was having a hard time breathing,” Msgr. Harrington said. “When I spoke with him I told him, ‘ánimo,’ and he said, ‘Yes, ánimo, ánimo.’ ”
“He was zealous for the Gospel, and he lived his vocation joyfully,” Msgr. Harrington concluded.
Father Jorge as a young boy in Mexico.
Father Jorge dancing with his sister.
Father Jorge posing with a member of the Neocatechumenal Way in Mexico.
Father Jorge, a short time after becoming director of the Mexican Apostolate in the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Father Jorge greeting a member of the Mexican Apostolate during one of the monthly Masses he used to celebrate for the members of that ministry.
Father Jorge was the driving force and main coordinator of the yearly celebrations of Our Lady of Guadalupe Feast Day in the Diocese of Brooklyn. The Virgin of Guadalupe Mass at St. Joseph Co-Cathedral is usually attended by thousands of pilgrims, followed by a torch-lit pilgrimage through the streets of Brooklyn and Queens.
Father Ortiz was also the director of the diocesan Mexican Apostolate and a revered figure within the large Mexican community in Brooklyn and Queens.
He “was a wonderful human being, a great priest and a good friend,” said Father Manuel Rodríguez, pastor of Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish in Queens.
“I can testify that he, at all times, was a man available to serve his people, in particular those connected to the Mexican communities. He was a tireless, unselfish worker in the vineyard of the Lord,” he added.
“We are going to miss him terribly and the people of God will miss him a lot.”
Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros said that “he was a good, holy priest and a friend. Father Jorge will be greatly missed.”
“As an evangelizer and priest, he was a model for all, especially young men and women. May his example be an encouragement for young men to consider the priesthood. His life was a happy and fulfilled self-giving to others,” Bishop Cisneros concluded.
One of Father Ortiz’s closest friends and collaborators was Elimelec Soriano, coordinator of the Mexican Apostolate.
“It is hard to express how much he meant for the Mexican Apostolate. So many people came back to the Church because of his pastoral work,” Soriano said. “He constantly insisted that the devotion so many Mexicans feel for Our Lady of Guadalupe was not enough. He said that she wanted us to have a real, deep conversion to her Son.”
He is survived by his parents, Jorge and Estela Ortiz, and his four siblings, nieces, and nephews. A Memorial Mass will be celebrated at a later date.