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Society

Church in New York Virus Epicenter Leads Congregants Out of Sorrow

NEW YORK — For nearly two decades, Juan Tapia, head of maintenance at Our Lady of Sorrows, has taken pride in the upkeep of the Roman Catholic church he considers his second home. But in recent months, he's made it his mission to scrub every corner. 

"The experience of all those deaths we had to live through makes me want to do my job with great care, because I don't want anyone to get infected," said Tapia, who sometimes wears a hazmat suit to sanitize the pews between services. 

More than 100 congregants of the parish in the mostly Latino Corona neighborhood of Queens died of COVID-19, many of them in the early days of the pandemic. And Tapia's family was not spared.

Tapia's son, Juan Jr., had worked with him at the church. The son was diagnosed with lung cancer before he contracted the virus that infected the whole family; he died on May 6, the anniversary of his baptism more than 20 years before. He was 27 years old.

"No family should have to go through this," said his father.

The depth of the sorrows of Our Lady of Sorrows has become apparent in the months since this nearly 150-year-old church was a major hotspot in New York City's roaring coronavirus contagion. Its pastor says the numbers of cases and deaths went underreported early on because church officials lacked accurate information and many people feared the stigma surrounding the illness.

Many are undocumented, lack access to health care and share crowded apartments that make them vulnerable to infection. The crisis has been exacerbated by record job losses and growing food insecurity. 

But the church has helped lead the way out of those dark times, setting up a free COVID-19 testing site outside and resuming indoor confessions once it was safe — thanks partly to Juan Tapia's dedication to disinfecting the wooden confessional. More recently he sanitized the palm fronds that will be used on Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.

"Faith has made the difference here for our people … because this church is really the epicenter of the social life and of the spiritual life in this neighborhood," said the Rev. Manuel Rodriguez, the pastor.

At 17,000 congregants, Our Lady of Sorrows is the largest parish in the Diocese of Brooklyn, which also oversees churches in Queens. Rodriguez said up to 1,000 people typically filled each of 12 Sunday Masses before in-person services halted in March 2020, when the city shut down to contain the fast-spreading virus. Many in the parish — including its former pastor, Monsignor. Raymond Roden — fell ill at the pandemic's onset.

Away from their church, parishioners suffered in silence. Tapia said when he and his wife contracted the virus, they feared spreading it to their already weak, cancer-ridden son.

"We couldn't even give him a glass of water, a cup of tea, a hug," he said. Isolating in their bedroom, they relied on one of their daughters to take care of him.

They still don't know if he caught COVID-19 at the hospital or if they passed it on to him. Almost a year later, his wife still can't speak about the death of their youngest child and only son.

"This pandemic has left such a mark on us that nothing will be the same," Tapia said.

Rodriguez was brought in from another parish in late June and in short order reopened the church, on July 4. "I thought to myself, 'if we keep this church closed one more day, people here, they're simply going to start falling apart.'"

Since there was a limit on gathering inside, he rented a huge tent that was put up in the parking lot for outdoor Mass and confession.

"Confession gives you the opportunity to have a one-on-one encounter with the people, so that's really healing," Rodriguez said. The church also organized food drives and bought new cameras to improve the livestream quality of its Masses.

Operating seven days a week out of a van, the testing site came about thanks to Helen Arteaga Landaverde, a longtime parishioner and former student of the church's school who founded the Plaza del Sol Family Health Center in Corona. Rodriguez sought her help after another priest tested positive, and she contacted the NYC COVID-19 Test & Trace Corps to get it up and running.

"The mobile unit has become part of the church — it's Sunday, and now it's like, 'oh, we're going to go to church and we're all getting tested together as a family,'" Arteaga said. "It brings down the anxiety … and it also normalizes that getting tested is not a bad thing."

Arteaga contracted the virus in April and credits nearby Elmhurst Hospital with saving her life. When she recovered, she became the hospital's new CEO. Surviving COVID-19 has helped her better understand the needs of the hospital's patients and members of her congregation.

"When you even say COVID, you feel this heaviness in our church. You feel this thing of, `How are we going to overcome this because it's still here?'" Arteaga said. 

"But now we have the tools: We have our faith, we have the vaccine and we still have daily breath to keep moving."

On the first Sunday of spring, hundreds in masks turned out for indoor Masses as many more listened on loudspeakers outside, bowing their heads or kneeling on the stone steps. People waited in line to be tested, and vendors sold shrimp ceviche, clothes and ice cream.

Maria Quizhpi said she was praying for the soul of her father, Manuel Quizhpi, who died at 59 from COVID-19 on April 9. 

The whole family contracted the virus. At one point Quizhpi became so weak that she fainted in the kitchen of their apartment; her husband administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as her 17-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son watched in horror. 

"Every time I come here, I thank God for saving my mom's life," said Melani Morocho, the daughter.

The family is grateful to be able to gather at the church alongside others who also mourn loved ones. 

"It left a huge void for us," Quizhpi said. "But we're still happy, glad because we have another opportunity to live and grow closer to God."

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