2 Hispanic churches and too many tears: 100 COVID-19 deaths

2 Hispanic churches and too many tears: 100 COVID-19 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, Monday, 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. (Credit: John Minchillo/AP.)

One is a Catholic church in Queens; the other, a Lutheran church in Manhattan. But the COVID-19 pandemic has united the two Hispanic congregations in grief.

NEW YORK — One is a 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 healthcare.

Leonardo Cabana cries over the casket of his father Hector Miguel Cabana who died of COVID-19 after a funeral home service led by the Rev. Fabian Arias, Monday, May 11, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Hector Miguel Cabana, who died from COVID-19 last week at the age of 74. He had played guitar and piano with several bands in venues around New York. (Credit: John Minchillo/AP.)

The death toll has neared 40 among the roughly 400 congregants who join Spanish-language services at Saint 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 Saint Bartholomew Catholic Church in the Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens. Its pastor, Father Rick Beuther, says at least 63 parishioners have died from the virus, possibly dozens more.

“The last eight, ten 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 says about 5,500 people — mostly undocumented Latinos — would attend Masses at Saint Bartholomew.

The Rev. Fabian Arias is surrounded by family members as he leads an in-home funeral service beside the remains of Graciela Ruiz Martinez who died of COVID-19, Sunday, May 10, 2020, in the Queens borough of New York. On Saturday and Sunday, for the first times during the pandemic, Arias performed funeral services in private homes — donning a surgical mask and gloves to join the mourning families. (Credit: John Minchillo/AP.)

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 which Saint Peter’s conducts across four of New York’s five boroughs. Some members of Saint Peter’s have contributed to help grieving families pay for cremation or burial services.

With the Saint 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.

The Rev. Fabian Fabian Arias offers a blessing over the head of a family member after leading an in-home funeral service for Graciela Ruiz Martinez who died of COVID-19, Sunday, May 10, 2020, in the Queens borough of New York. On Saturday and Sunday, for the first times during the pandemic, Arias performed funeral services in private homes — donning a surgical mask and gloves to join the mourning families. (Credit: John Minchillo/AP.)

On Saturday and Sunday, for the first times during the pandemic, Arias performed funeral services in private homes — donning a surgical mask and gloves to join the mourning families.

On Monday, he was back at a funeral home, leading a service for Argentine-born musician Héctor Miguel Cabaña, who died from COVID-19 last week at the age of 74. He had played guitar and piano with several bands in venues around New York.

“It’s very hard for our community,” Arias said. “For all Latinos, when our people die, they receive a blessing. We say the last goodbye and pray together. It’s very important for us.”

Saint Peter’s is among five Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations serving Hispanics in the New York area that have been hard hit by the coronavirus, according to the regional bishop, Paul Egensteiner. He said the challenges are particularly severe at Saint Peter’s because of the large numbers of undocumented immigrants.

“Many of them are reluctant to go to the hospital, wondering will they get treated, will they get deported,” he said.

The Hispanic congregation now based at Saint Peter’s dates back to 1950, when it was formed in East Harlem to serve Lutherans in the growing Puerto Rican community. The congregation steadily diversified to include Latin Americans of other backgrounds. In 2012, due to financial difficulties, it relocated from East Harlem to Saint Peter’s Church, which also serves offers English-language services.

The Rev. Fabian Arias touches rosary beads he has hanging from his rearview mirror on a food donation delivery run to the Harlem neighborhood of the Manhattan borough of New York, Friday, May 8, 2020. In hard-hit New York City, the coronavirus outbreak has taken a particularly heavy toll on Hispanic communities. (Credit: John Minchillo/AP.)

Arias, 56, a native of Argentina, has been the congregation’s pastor since 2003. He knows that a sense of community is crucial.

“In difficult moments, it’s important that we are together,” he said. “Of course that doesn’t mean physically together, but we can be close on the phone, on the computer.”

Some congregation members, he said, want to reopen Saint Peter’s and resume in-person services. But it is too soon, too dangerous.

“It’s not what God would want,” he said. “God wants to protect life.”

AP photographer John Minchillo and AP video journalist Emily Leshner contributed to this report.

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