A Look at COVID and Diocese of Brooklyn, 6 Months Into Pandemic

A banner on the fence outside Our Lady of Lourdes Church is a reminder of the toll COVID-19 has taken on the Queens Village parish. (Photo: Courtesy of Father Patrick Longalong)

WINDSOR TERRACE — A remembrance candle burned brightly in Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Queens Village, throughout the summer.

“We had the candle to honor the people we lost in the pandemic,” Father Patrick Longalong, the pastor, told The Tablet.

The candle has only recently been removed, a sign that the parish is slowly starting to move forward from the grief — but reminders are still there. A banner hangs on a fence outside the church to honor the deceased.

The first known case of COVID-19 in New York City was confirmed six months ago, and since then, the Diocese of Brooklyn has suffered devastating losses.

“It is hard to believe that only six months have passed since the COVID-19 pandemic upended our lives,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said. “With everything we have been through in our Diocese in Brooklyn and Queens, it certainly feels longer. As we continue to see the consequences of this pandemic, we continue to pray for all of the victims the coronavirus has claimed, including two of our own priests.”

Father Jorge Ortiz-Garay, 49, pastor of St. Brigid Church, Wyckoff Heights, and Father Gioacchino Basile, 60, pastor of St. Gabriel Church, East Elmhurst, both succumbed to coronavirus. Father Ortiz-Garay died on March 27. He was the first Catholic priest in the U.S. to die of COVID-19. Father Basile died on April 4.

Father Jorge Ortiz-Garay was the first Catholic priest in the U.S. to die of COVID-19. (File Photo)

“The death of 49-year old Father Jorge Ortiz-Garay has left a tremendous void for the parishioners of St. Brigid’s, and also for all of the Mexican Apostolate of our Diocese,” said the bishop, noting that the deceased priest was the diocesan coordinator of the Ministry to Mexican Immigrants.

“The loss of Father Gioacchino Basile, who at only 60-years-old was to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Priesthood this year, devastated the faithful at St. Gabriel’s,” Bishop DiMarzio said.

Father Basile’s death was a shock, according to Father Nicholas Apollonio, administrator for St. Gabriel Church. “No one expected it. He told people he was leaving for a while to take care of his health and that he would be back,” Father Apollonio told The Tablet.

Father Ortiz-Garay’s remains were returned to his native Mexico on May 6. Father Basile’s remains will be transferred to his native Italy on Sept. 8 following an 8:30 a.m. prayer service outside Sacred Hearts & St. Stephen Church, Carroll Gardens. The church is located near the Scotto Funeral Home, which is handling the transfer. 

“We wanted to give the parishioners a chance to say a final goodbye to him,” Father Apollionio said.

The Mary Louis Academy, Jamaica, suffered the loss of its assistant principal, Joseph Lewinger, 42, on March 28.

Churches saw parishioners die of COVID-19 or contract the virus and endure months of slow, painful recoveries.

Father Longalong estimated that 40-50 of his parishioners died of COVID-19. “It had an impact here,” he said. “It isn’t just the deaths, it’s the trauma of knowing that relatives died isolated in the hospital without a family member there.”

One parishioner made the decision to die at home rather than go to the hospital, Father Longalong said. At the time of his death, he was surrounded by his wife and family.

The pandemic closed schools and prohibited in-person church masses.

Dr. Cristina Cruz, principal of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Academy, Corona, said 60 percent of her students had family members with COVID-19. Four of her teachers also came down with the virus, and many of her students’ parents lost their jobs.

Cruz delivered groceries to them and made sure she and the teachers kept in regular contact with families. “We did phone calls, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ We put the kids first,” she said.

Our Lady of Sorrows has been impacted in another way — decreased enrollment for the 2020-2021 school year. Cruz said that before COVID-19, the projected enrollment for September was 280, and “now, it’s 246.” “Families are leaving New York,” she said.

Still, there have been signs of life moving forward.

On May 26, the diocese announced that churches, which had been closed since March 20, could reopen for private prayer. Funerals and weddings with limited attendance could also take place. 

Weekday Masses resumed on June 29. Parishioners were able to return to Sunday Masses on the weekend of July 4-5.

“Catholics throughout Brooklyn and Queens have adapted to the new way of attending Mass,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “As we continue to adhere to the guidelines so as to keep each other safe, we ask God to continue to strengthen the faith of the people of our diocese during these trying days.”

Schools in the diocese are planning to reopen on Sept. 9.

Some activities continued even during the height of the pandemic.

 The diocese worked to ensure that religious education would continue uninterrupted for the 46,000 children enrolled in parish programs. Lessons for First Holy Communion and Confirmation candidates also continued apace.