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Priest who volunteered for COVID-19 vaccine trial passes away


Archeparchy of Philadelphia - Філадельфійська Архиєпархія УГКЦ | Facebook | Fair Use

John Burger - published on 12/01/20

Fr. John Fields was communications director of Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia.

Fr. John M. Fields, a Pennsylvania priest who had participated in the third and final phase of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine trial, died November 27. Fr. Fields, a priest of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, was 70 and died at his home in Philadelphia.

The cause of death was an apparent heart attack, according to Fr. Michael Hutsko, pastor of Saints Peter and Paul Church in Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania. Fr. Fields did not have COVID-19, Auxiliary Bishop Andriy Rabiy, vicar general of the archeparchy, confirmed Monday.

Metropolitan Archbishop Borys Gudziak of Philadelphia said in a statement that he and Fr. Fields, who served as communications director of the archeparchy, had just spoken before Thanksgiving and that Fr. Fields “was in good spirits and seemingly improving in his health.”

“Fr. John was an ardent American patriot and a proud carrier of the legacy of his Pennsylvania coal mining homeland,” Archbishop Gudziak said. “There is nothing that he loved more than sharing stories of the people, parishes, and past of our Anthracite region.

“He remained hopeful about the future, that of the Church, the country, and his own ability to make a contribution,” the archbishop continued. “As Father John professed and preached, our hope is in the Lord and His Resurrection.” 

A November 23 Catholic News Service article reported that when Fr. Fields received an email this summer from the University of Pennsylvania asking if he would like to participate in the vaccine trials, he answered “yes” immediately.

“I did not hesitate,” he told the wire service. “It would be a great opportunity to fight this pesky virus that suddenly appeared and wreaked havoc throughout the world, bringing death and disrupting every aspect of our lives.” 

Fr. Fields was the first volunteer in the study at the University of Pennsylvania, and received his first injection August 31, said CNS. 

He said that for the first week after the injection, he had to make a daily report of his temperature and any symptoms — fatigue, nausea, injection site pain, arm swelling, chills or fever, or headaches, according to CNS. He said he didn’t have any. He received a second injection on October 1, after which he again felt no symptoms.

On October 26, he returned for a follow-up evaluation. He was to continue to be evaluated for 25 months. He was gratified hearing news that the Moderna vaccine was showing a very high effectiveness rate.

Fr. Fields said he never had any concern about the risks of participating in the trials.

“I thought it was a win-win situation,” he told CNS. By being in the study, he said he “may be able to contribute in some small way to the development of an effective vaccine that would help stop this worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and the fear, suffering and death that it has already caused to millions and end the shutdowns and help restore society once again to a normal lifestyle. And hopefully, if I did not get a placebo and actually received the vaccine that subsequently receives approval, I would be among the first to benefit from the medical breakthrough of the Moderna vaccine.”

The priest expressed the hope that along with the almost 30,000 other volunteers throughout the United States in the Moderna study, “collectively we may have helped to defeat this deadly virus and prevent millions of deaths throughout the world. For this, I am grateful to God, for this opportunity.”

Trained as a lawyer

John Michael Fields was born on February 19, 1950, in Butler Township, Pennsylvania. He received a bachelor’s degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1972, with a dual major in Russian studies and political science. In 1975, he earned a J.D. in law at Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law. He was a partner at the Thomas and Fields Law Office.

He entered St. Josaphat’s Ukrainian Catholic Seminary in Washington, D.C., and studied at the School of Theology at the Catholic University of America. After receiving an M.A. in theology in 1986, he completed coursework in canon law at Catholic University.

Philadelphia Metropolitan Archbishop Stephen Sulyk ordained him to the diaconate on April 4, 1985, and to the priesthood on May 11, 1986. Both ordinations were at the Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in Philadelphia. On May 17, 1998, Archbishop Sulyk conferred upon Fr. Fields the title “Protopresbyter (Archpriest)” for his dedicated work in the priesthood. 

Fr. Fields was a pastor at several parishes in Pennsylvania. Between 1988 and 2004, he oversaw the construction and rededication of two new churches and took pride in helping design both to emulate the traditional wooden church structures found in Ukraine.

Among many other positions, Fr. Fields served as editor of “The Way,” the official newspaper of the Ukrainian Archeparchy of Philadelphia, and as a member of the board of directors of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

He is survived by two sisters, Diane M. (Dennis) Berkheiser and MaryAnn Fields-Whyne, as well as nephews and nieces.

A funeral will be offered at St. Michael Church in Frackville, Pennsylvania, on Thursday, December 3, at 11 a.m.  Fr. Field’s family requests that in lieu of flowers or other offerings that donations be made in his name to the St. Josaphat Seminary Endowment Fund, c/o Archbishop’s Chancery, 810 North Franklin Street, Philadelphia, PA 19123.


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