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Priests who got COVID-19 recover with help of their flocks

Alejandro “Alex” Trejo
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Fr. Trejo and Fr. Medina, who serve immigrant communities, were sidelined by coronavirus but will return to pastoring.

In the United States, Hispanic households report serious COVID-19 symptoms nearly twice as often as non-Hispanic homes, a recent survey reported by USA Today shows. In several cases, the spiritual anchor of Hispanic communities — often a Catholic priest — has been sidelined by the lung disease, adding angst and insecurity.

In the worst case scenarios, the disruption has been the death of a priest from the coronavirus, as in the case of 49-year-old Father Jorge Ortiz-Garay, a pastor and Coordinator of the Ministry to Mexican immigrants in the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. Fr. Ortiz-Garay died March 27 and is believed to be the first Catholic priest in the United States to die as a result of COVID-19.

But even when pastors do not die, the disease has caused serious ripple effects.

Take the case of a priest in the Diocese of Yakima, Washington, for example. The area is known for apple orchards and thus attracts lots of migrant workers, many from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Serving Our Lady of the Desert parish in Mattawa is Fr. Alejandro “Alex” Trejo. Under his leadership, the closely-knit community has grown in 10 years from 500 to 5,000 parishioners. As the Catholic Extension Society, which supports the parish, explained, Fr. Trejo returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in February and fell ill.

“He immediately self-quarantined, but by that evening, the usually vibrant priest’s health had declined so severely, he required hospitalization and admission to the ICU,” wrote Catholic Extension, which connects poor and remote Catholic communities with essential financial support, educational partnerships, and infrastructure. “Bishop Joseph Tyson of Yakima heard the news and worked closely with health officials to gauge and mitigate the risk.  Our Lady of the Desert parishioners reacted with calm and loving support. A rotation of caregivers, including the bishop himself, ensured Father Alex had someone at his ‘virtual’ bedside throughout the ordeal.”

“We stood on the other side of his hospital room door, in full protective gear, speaking words of comfort and prayer into a phone held to his ear,” Bishop Tyson said.

Fr. Trejo was discharged from the hospital March 23, but had to spend time in a physical therapy facility, as he was weak and unable to care for himself. He was still continuing to recover in mid-May. Fortunately for the priest, the support of his community is assisting that recovery.

“The love of his flock keeps him pushing forward. There’s medicinal power in the homemade chilaquiles,” quipped Bishop Tyson, referring to a simple but tasty Mexican dish.

Fr. Odel Medina is another priest who experienced a similar ordeal, and likewise recovered, with the help of his flock. Catholic Extension has the rest of the story.

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