Fr. Brendan Gormley is a 56-year-old priest who joined The Church of St. Clare, the largest Roman Catholic parish in Staten Island, N.Y., three years ago. He is now recovering from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, along with four of his fellow clergypersons after a week in the hospital. He spoke to TIME about the church’s experience with the coronavirus, the loss of beloved 73-year-old “Fr. Richard” a.k.a. Monsignor Richard Guastella on Thursday and how the parish has struggled to serve the community this Easter season.
What stands out in your mind about when this all started?
You didn’t realize how bad this was all going to be. You hear about it in China and then you heard about it in Italy, then Westchester [County, N.Y.] and then New York. I don’t think we realized what was coming down the pike, but we do now.
Fr. Richard, to his credit, when it first came down said, “Listen this is what we’re going to do. We’ll start livestreaming masses so people can watch via the internet.” And that held up for about a week or so but then a priest here got [COVID-19]. I was supposed to have a Wednesday mass at 7 a.m. and [when] I woke up I felt feverish, and went into the shower and started coughing. That was the start of it for me.
Then we stopped the livestreaming and everything. We just focused on what we needed to do to get through this. You know every priest here got it along with one seminarian. And as a Church we miss the Eucharist. Our Sunday is our life. We miss that encounter with Jesus Christ and I just want that back.
I was in the hospital for a week. I had trouble breathing. Thank God I never had to go on a ventilator, but I was on oxygen virtually the entire time I was there. I was discharged last Sunday. These days I’m still quarantining and getting back my strength and spending a lot of time in prayer.
The hospital saved my life. They’re amazing! They’re getting a rosary a day going forward.
In early March did you have to respond to people in the hospital?
We did in the early days before everyone knew [about COVID-19 spreading]. I remember, I went on a Saturday evening to the hospital for Last Rights and coming home I realized, my mom is 86-years-old and lives here on the island. She still lives in the home I grew up in. And I said “I can’t go visit anymore.” And I’m glad I didn’t.
You know we’re not allowed to go to the hospital right now. We can’t. I do know that Fr. Richard did get anointed the night he died. That’s a blessing and a comfort.
I’m so sorry for your loss can you tell me about “Fr. Richard?”
I came here from a parish in the Bronx, but I’m actually originally a Staten Islander. Every time you go into a new assignment you basically know what you’re going into, but you never know what you’re going into. The day I arrived. He was so welcoming. When I got here, I didn’t have a bed. He gave me his office in another building with a place to sleep until my bed could be delivered. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was when you’re trying to get settled.
Any great moments that stand out in your head about how he worked?
After every mass, each priest here was expected to greet the people on the way out, and we had our little stations. It was so the parishioners would see you. Sunday is obviously the big day for a Catholic parish, but rather than sitting in the rectory reading the newspaper, he expected us [to greet the people] and he himself did this.
Did he have a mission as a priest?
It really was to make Jesus Christ known and present. Especially in the liturgy as well as the helping those in need. We have an amazing vibrant St. Vincent DePaul Society, which reaches out to those in need and does it quietly.
I’m a big fan of Mother Teresa and she said that essentially, “It’s not charity if you don’t treat the person with kindness.” If someone comes looking for help and you don’t respect that person’s dignity, you haven’t done the person any good. I would say Fr. Rich definitely reached out, respecting the human dignity of each person. He had a special place in his heart for the poor.
This is very much a middle class parish, very working class, but there’s poverty that you don’t always see. People work, and sometimes they have trouble making the bills meet and getting enough money to get through, and hopefully the church is able to help.
Did you celebrate Good Friday mass online?
No, I’m still weak. As much as I want to do stuff, I’ve got to focus on getting better. Fr. Joseph Harrision is still in the middle of it. I’ve been worried, watching his breathing, watching his temperature. He’s doing well.
What’s very kind is that Bishop Edward Whalen is coming to offer mass on Sunday morning. So he’ll be offering mass for the parish [online] and we’ll make sure that he’s protected. You can watch it on the Youtube and our website.
I know they did the Stations of the Cross last night online. We’re using technology as best as we can. We want to be together again.
It’s a great time to trust our lord, his goodness, his love and his mercy. He hasn’t abandoned us. I mentioned earlier I’m a big fan of Mother Teresa and I sent out a little quote to a lot of people and I’d just like to share it with you: “Never let anything so fill you with sorrow as to make you forget the joy of Christ risen.”
God bless, stay safe and you take care of your family as well. Happy Easter.