2 Hispanic Churches in New York City Suffer 100 Coronavirus Deaths

Leonardo Cabaña cries in the arms of his friend Raphael Benevides beside the casket of his father, Héctor Miguel Cabaña, who died of COVID-19, before the funeral home service led by the Rev. Fabian Arias, on May 11, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. In hard-hit New York City, the coronavirus outbreak has taken a particularly heavy toll on Hispanic communities. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

NEW YORK (AP) — One is a Roman Catholic church in Queens; the other, a Lutheran church in Manhattan. But the COVID-19 pandemic has united the two Hispanic congregations in grief.

Between them, they have lost more than 100 members to the coronavirus, and because of lockdown rules, they lack even the ability to mourn together in person.

Many in their communities have vulnerabilities — jobs classified as essential during the pandemic, at workplaces ranging from hospitals to supermarkets, with pressure to keep working even at the risk of exposure. And many are undocumented immigrants who lack access to health care.

The death toll has neared 40 among the roughly 400 congregants who join Spanish-language services at St. Peter’s Church, a Lutheran congregation in midtown Manhattan. The church serves Hispanic immigrants from across the city, and the dead come from across Latin America. Congregation president Christopher Vergara says it’s been a challenge simply to relay word of the deaths back to their homelands.

The toll has been even higher at St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in the Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens. Its pastor, the Rev. Rick Beuther, said at least 63 parishioners have died from the virus, possibly dozens more.

“The last eight, 10 weeks has been a real tsunami, a disaster for us here, between sickness, death, unemployment and just lack of services for the undocumented,” Beuther said.

On a typical Sunday before the pandemic, Beuther said, about 5,500 people — mostly undocumented Latinos — would attend Masses at St. Bartholomew.

Now, with in-person services canceled, he tries to stay in touch by calling dozens of parishioners daily and liaising with chaplains who visit those who are hospitalized.

In both congregations, many live in crowded apartments that heighten the risk of exposure and offer no option for isolation and self-quarantine.

“It brought a lot of stress,” Beuther said. “Anyone who was coughing or sneezing in an apartment, they’d be afraid that the rest of the group would ask them to leave.”

Both churches have launched extensive food assistance programs for needy parishioners, including an elaborate door-to-door delivery program that St. Peter’s conducts across four of New York’s five boroughs. Some members of St. Peter’s have contributed to help grieving families pay for cremation or burial services.

With the St. Peter’s church building closed during the pandemic, the Rev. Fabián Arias has been conducting services online from his home in the Bronx — taking time to read out the names of the recently deceased. He also has conducted a few funerals in funeral homes that allow only a handful of mourners at a time.

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Source: Religion News Service