Young Priest Loses Mentor and Father to Coronavirus

In this May 12, 2020, photo, the Rev. Joseph Dutan comforts his niece, Valerie Dutan, at the funeral of his father, Manuel Dutan, at St. John’s Cemetery in the Queens borough of New York. Within one month, Dutan experienced the loss of his father and a fellow cleric, whom he considered a mentor. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

NEW YORK (AP) — The Rev. Joseph Dutan recalls how he lifted the chalice in the empty church and felt a flood of emotions: grief, the pain of isolation, even doubt.

But also, the promise of hope that is the gift of every Easter — even in the midst of a pandemic that had already robbed him and his community of so much, and threatened to take so much more.

He prayed for the soul of the Rev. Jorge Ortiz, his mentor and the first Catholic priest in the United States to die from the novel coronavirus. Dutan prayed that he could console a community that could not gather to mourn Ortiz’s passing.

And Dutan offered a more personal prayer: for his own father, struggling with COVID-19.

“God,” he prayed, “I’ll follow my vocation, but please take care of my dad.”

It was not the first time Dutan had faced death. He has officiated at funerals. And before he followed his calling, he was treated successfully for leukemia at the same hospital where his father was on a ventilator, fighting for his life.

But for this 32-year-old priest, the weeks of the pandemic have been a unique struggle.

He has been overcome with emotions for his family and St. Brigid parishioners. “Hearing their pain, you could relate,” he said.

The harm caused by the virus is all around him: The funeral home across from St. Brigid, always busy. The blaring sirens of ambulances speeding near the church in this area straddling Brooklyn and Queens, which have some of the highest number of infections in New York City.

Dutan estimated that dozens of St. Brigid’s parishioners have been infected and said that at least three have died from COVID-19 complications since Ortiz’s death.

Parishioners are unemployed. Others are undocumented — “They come from Ecuador, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Panama, from all over the world” — and many of them live in cramped apartments that don’t allow for social distancing, rendering them vulnerable.

“You start to see how the community is being affected,” Dutan says.

Through the crisis, he has advised the church youth group on Zoom, celebrated Mass in English and Spanish on Facebook via livestream and taken calls from worried parishioners.

“Father Joseph was one of the first people that we called. I flat out told him: ‘We’re scared.’ I don’t know what to do, not just about losing Father Jorge, but my parents are sick,” said Tiffany Velez, 27, whose parents contracted the coronavirus.

“The minute I called him he was so calm, cool and collected. He shared his personal story.”

Ortiz was his close friend — Batman to Dutan’s Robin, said Robert Velez, a parishioner who was married by Dutan. Ortiz and Dutan had lived together in the rectory. Dutan brought Ortiz food when he fell ill, called the ambulance when his condition worsened. On their last call, he implored his mentor to recover, so they could sing together at the Easter service.

Ortiz was 49 when he died on March 27.

Days later, Dutan’s 56-year-old father, Manuel, was rushed to New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. When he took a turn for the worse on Good Friday, a hospital chaplain performed the last rites. By the next day, his condition improved.

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Source: Religion News Service