BRONX, New York — As names of their loved ones lost to COVID-19 were read from the altar at St. John-Visitation Church, a muted gong sounded and dozens of people made their way up the sun-drenched main aisle to receive a memorial taper lit from the pascal candle.
Singly, in pairs, and in small family knots, the masked men and women received the tangible remembrance of over 50 people from the Bronx parish community who died during the pandemic.
Father Michael Kerrigan, pastor of St. John-Visitation Parish, concelebrated a bilingual memorial Mass March 13 with Father Antonio Astudillo, his Ecuadorean-born parochial vicar.
The parish and the surrounding community of Kingsbridge are home to working-class Hispanics and some Anglos, Kerrigan said. Their jobs in the service industries were impacted by the shutdown and the coronavirus spread rapidly in the neighborhood, he said.
The Mass marked the first anniversary of the pandemic’s grip on New York City and was designed to offer solace for mourners, thanksgiving for those who have recovered and continued encouragement for front-line workers.
Health care workers and people who experienced the virus were offered a special blessing written by the Catholic Health Association. It began, “Blessed are the ones who cannot be isolated” and included, “Blessed are those who weep openly with us, so that even our tears have companions.”
At the Mass, a newly donated chalice and paten were used for the first time. They were dedicated to people lost in the pandemic.
Kerrigan said the idea for the Mass arose from a staff meeting. “It’s been a difficult year for people and many who died last spring were unable to have funeral Masses,” he said. There also was a well-attended memorial Mass in July, shortly after public worship was allowed to resume in New York.
Kerrigan, Astudillo, a retired priest in residence at the rectory, and three parish staff members were infected with the coronavirus in late December. The senior priest has lingering effects and is convalescing off-site, but the others have recovered from mild cases of COVID-19.
The pastor donated plasma after he developed antibodies and described the experience as “something good that came from the experience.”
One of those affected was the parish business manager, George Chiffriller, who also is studying to become a deacon for the Archdiocese of New York.
“I told him to pack a bag and come to the rectory so he didn’t infect his wife,” Kerrigan said. Chiffriller moved into the rectory on New Year’s Eve.
Chiffriller said his primary symptoms were lethargy and fatigue. Nonetheless, the experience of living with the priests for a week was “a good thing for my ministry. It was very prayerful and it was nice to celebrate Mass with the clergy every day.”
Chiffriller was the cantor and one of two people presenting candles to mourners at the memorial Mass.
In his homily, Kerrigan said the Mass fell on the eighth anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, who reminds the faithful, “We are all in the same boat, struggling to come together, but the Lord Jesus is with us and will not abandon us.”
Kerrigan said as pandemic restrictions have been eased, parishioners have returned to Mass and religious education classes. The Saturday Spanish-language vigil Mass regularly reaches the capacity allowed by social-distancing requirements and the Lenten season has drawn more people back to church, he said.
The parish religious education classes are popular with parents who want their children tutored in the faith. Over 80 students received first Communion in four ceremonies Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and an equal number are preparing to receive the sacrament in July. Thirty children will be confirmed in November.
“These are parents who are trying to get an education for their children and help them move forward,” Kerrigan said. The children speak and are taught in English but the families prefer to worship in Spanish, he added.
Kerrigan said it is too soon to know if all the parishioners will return to his multigenerational, multiethnic parish, “We trust there are better days ahead, but we are still in the midst of a pandemic.”