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Pandemic Crimps Attendance but not Joy at Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Brooklyn

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Event Also Honors Father Ortiz-Garay, First Priest in the U.S. to Die From COVID-19

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Pandemic precautions curbed attendance Dec. 12 for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Still, the people celebrating at the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph resembled a standing-room-only crowd, radiating joy and praise for Jesus’ Mother.

The 220 attendees also paid loving honor to the late Father Jorge Ortiz-Garay, former director of the Mexican Apostolate for the Diocese of Brooklyn, who died in March of COVID-19.

Father Ortiz-Garay, a beloved pastor at St. Brigid’s Church, Bushwick, had been the annual feast organizer. It is held to commemorate the Blessed Virgin Mary’s apparition before the indigenous Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac, Mexico.

The priest’s parents with some of his siblings journeyed from their native Mexico to attend the feast. Members of the family wept as a mariachi performer sang a song written about Father Ortiz-Garay. He was the first Catholic priest in the U.S. to die from COVID-19.

One of his brothers, Edgar, said he felt strange being in Brooklyn while his brother was buried back home in Mexico.

“But, to come here — it’s an honor for my family and my brother,” he said, his voice filled with emotion. “I am very happy.”

His sister Irais added, “My brother was a big man — a big brother. First, he’s my brother, and later he’s the priest. So, he’s one to love because he’s a good man.”

During the event, lay members of the Mexican Apostolate marched up to Father Ortiz-Garay’s family sitting together in a front pew. Each member, dressed in black — except for their white t-shirts honoring the priest — carried a single-stem white rose.

One by one, they handed the flowers to the family, forming massive bouquets in the arms of Jorge and Estella, the priest’s parents.

As director of the Mexican Apostolate, one of Father Ortiz-Garay’s jobs was to organize celebrations for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio praised him for drawing young people from the diocese into the celebrations, including the Guadalupanos. They regularly attend feast celebrations at the co-cathedral near downtown Brooklyn and then journey by foot back to their parishes where the feasting continues. 

“He understood what needed to be done,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “He organized the apostolate so that in every parish where there are Mexicans, there was a Guadalupanos group. We have representatives of each group here so that they can give witness to what it means to be involved in the life of the church.”

“We’re sorry that God took him from us, but he’s helping us, I think, from his place with the Lord, to keep the Mexican apostolate going. We have so many young people.”

Usually, the Guadalupanos groups carry a torch, each lit by Bishop DiMarzio at the cathedral. This year, however, that tradition was canceled as another COVID-19 precaution.

More mariachi performances and folk dances — including a traditional Aztec dance group — preceded the Eucharist celebration with Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, the celebrant, and Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros the homilist.

Although this year’s feast featured no Guadalupanos pilgrimages, Bishop DiMarzio did light a single torch to represent all parishes. The torch was handed to Father Ortiz-Garay’s 13-year-old nephew, Patricio, who raised it high for the entire diocese.

Father Baltazar Sánchez Alonzo, who became the new director of the Mexican Apostolate, said he was “a little scared” to fill the job. Still, he drew confidence from the memories of his friendship with Father Ortiz-Garay.

“His presence, I think, is here with us,” Father Sánchez-Alonzo said. “I have his rosary here with me, so I feel his presence with us and with me, especially leading this experience. I believe he is happy, looking down on the fruits of his work.”

Father Joseph Dutan worked with Father Ortiz-Garay at St. Brigid’s Church. He said Father Sánchez-Alonzo is expertly continuing the ministry of Father Ortiz-Garay, and a good example of that was the feast day celebration. 

“But today was even more special seeing everybody out here,” Father Dutan said. “I know it’s not the same numbers. We used to have everything packed. But you felt Father Jorge’s presence because you saw smiles on everyone’s faces, but you also saw expressions of sadness because they lost their loved one. They lost their leader.

“But you see hope in them as well. Aside from the tears, you see that there is hope.”

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