With the number of priests and religious dying from coronavirus-related illnesses rising, Pope Francis offered…
Stories of priests who contracted COVID-19 highlight virus’ unpredictable nature
From the temporary suspension of public Masses to strict social distancing protocols, the novel coronavirus has upended parish life across the United States. A positive test result for COVID-19 by a parish priest adds a whole other layer of disruption.
Our Sunday Visitor spoke with priests of two parish communities directly impacted by the virus. Their disparate experiences highlight the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus, and the seriousness with which it must be taken.
The loss of a priest, and a friend
Father Arcangelo Manzi was “very particular” about Italian food and Italian music.
“He loved good music, and he loved good food,” said Father Joseph Eddy, the pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Cleveland.
Father Eddy, a Mercedarian priest whose religious order staffs the parish and its school, recalled the fond memories he has of Father Manzi, who died April 21 after being infected with COVID-19. He was 81.
Father Manzi, who was born in Carife, Italy, taught Father Eddy how to cook Italian food. He enjoyed talking with people, teasing them in a good-natured manner and spending time with his flock. At parish festivals, Father Manzi could often be found helping out in the kitchen.
“He was a lot of fun,” Father Eddy told Our Sunday Visitor. “But he was also a man of deep faith. He had a deep devotion to Mary and the Rosary. He never missed our community praying together three or four times a day. He was always there, even if he wasn’t always feeling the best.”
Father Manzi’s death saddened the community of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which serves Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood and Gordon Square Arts District. He was the first priest in the Diocese of Cleveland to be diagnosed with COVID-19, and the first to die from it.
“There was this feeling of, ‘What could I have done to protect him more? Did I do something wrong?'” said Father Eddy, who added that Father Manzi wore plastic gloves and never left the house.
“Father himself was very vigilant and very nervous about it,” Father Eddy said. “The other friars made sure he never left the house. He was cooking for us even that last week, because nobody else was allowed to come in.”
It was just after Palm Sunday when Father Manzi became ill. When he failed to attend morning Mass, which was unusual for him, Father Eddy found him in his room, “extremely confused” and sick. An ambulance took Father Manzi to a local hospital, where he was diagnosed with COVID-19 the next day.
At the hospital, Father Manzi seemed to be recovering, and he told visitors he wanted his prayer book. But within a couple of days, he took a turn for the worse and was put on a respirator. He spent the last two weeks of his life on the respirator, unconscious.
As his organs began to fail, Father Manzi’s family and Father Eddy made the difficult decision to take him off the respirator. He died within 20 minutes, but not before his family, friends and other priests could say their goodbyes to him over the telephone.
“For Father Manzi, being a priest meant to smell like the sheep, in the words of Pope Francis,” Father Eddy said. “So Father was to go through what the people themselves went through, and I think people rallied around that.”
Father Eddy, the other Mercedarian friars and Father Manzi’s family held a small, private funeral Mass in April amid restrictions related to COVID-19. Father Eddy said a public memorial Mass in Father Manzi’s memory was to take place Sept. 20 and would include many of his favorite Italian hymns.
In May, Father Eddy, the other priests at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and all the Mercedarian Sisters who live in a convent on the parish grounds all tested positive for the coronavirus antibodies.
Earlier this year, Father Eddy had been sick and passed out during Mass, but coronavirus testing was not yet then available for anyone under 65. He recovered within a couple of days, and just figured he had been dehydrated from a flu.
“Many of our people told us that we were the first ones they knew personally who had gotten the virus,” Father Eddy said. “How it got to us, we don’t know.”
‘A success story’
Father Luke Hoyt’s prayers to the Blessed Mother worked.
“This is a success story,” said Father Hoyt, a Dominican priest who serves as the interim administrator of Holy Innocents Church in Pleasantville, New York.
In mid-September, Father Hoyt had just been notified that of the roughly 200 parishioners who had been tested for COVID-19 after a possible exposure at weekend Masses, literally none of them came back positive.
“It also shows that all the safety protocols we’ve been following, they worked,” Father Hoyt told Our Sunday Visitor. “And it should give us a lot of confidence that all the safety measures we’re trying to follow are indeed doing their job.”
In late August, Father Hoyt said someone notified the parish, located about 30 miles north of Manhattan, that they had just tested positive for the coronavirus.
“So we all quarantined,” said Father Hoyt, who, along with the other priest and parish staff members, underwent coronavirus testing provided by the Archdiocese of New York.
Father Hoyt, 35, said he tested positive for COVID-19, though he said he only experienced “mild symptoms.” An older priest in the parish also tested positive for the virus, and though his symptoms were stronger, he also recovered, Father Hoyt said.
In addition to being quarantined, Father Hoyt and the staff had to contact parishioners to inform them of their possible exposure.
“It was a very busy three days after that,” said Father Hoyt, whose email inbox “began filling up” almost immediately after the announcement. He worked through those emails as the phone in his office “rang off the hook.”
“There was definitely a fair amount of anxiety, no question about that, and maybe people responded in a variety of ways to each other,” Father Hoyt said. “But every communication that was given directly to me was either simply wanting to be informed of this or that detail, or was simply a communication of encouragement, of people offering their prayers.”
The public health department in Westchester County, New York, also got involved immediately, issuing quarantines for parishioners who had been to weekend Masses at Holy Innocents Church. The health department also initiated contact tracing to figure out who had been at those Masses and notify them.
“It was very impressive how much coordination began to take place right after we explained the situation to people,” said Father Hoyt, who added that the county health department also set up a special testing site for parishioners at a local hospital.
Ten days after he tested positive for COVID-19, the county health department released Father Hoyt from his quarantine. Father Hoyt asked if he was certified to carry out all normal facets of his ministry.
“The county told me, ‘You’re welcome to return back to work as long as you can have the church cleaned,’ which we did,” said Father Hoyt, who reopened the church on Sept. 14 after having it deep-cleaned and sanitized. He said parishioners even returned that Monday for daily Mass.
“I’m really grateful to the county, the local hospital, our village officials and most especially to our parishioners,” Father Hoyt said. “Everyone has been super supportive throughout all this.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.