Easter this year will not be the same for St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother parish in Queens’ East Elmhurst neighborhood.
For one, the Roman Catholic church, like others around the world, will celebrate its most important day remotely, with Masses and prayers being held over Zoom.
But at St. Gabriel, a critical figure within the parish community will be missing: its beloved pastor, Father Gioacchino Basile. He died as a result of coronavirus on April 4, according to the Diocese of Brooklyn.
“Father Gioacchino was loved by everyone — everyone in the parish,” parishioner Florence Soulama said. “We are heartbroken.”
“He is really a model priest for what we need at this time,” she said.
A hard-hit neighborhood
This particular time is especially difficult for the St. Gabriel community. Elmhurst has been one of the hardest hit areas of New York City by coronavirus, with more than 764 confirmed cases according to New York City Health Department data.
Elmhurst Hospital, a 15-minute drive from the parish, quickly became a symbol in the city’s fight to control the virus, with Mayor Bill de Blasio saying it has “borne the brunt more than any other hospital in the city” on April 5.
Gioacchino was one of six members of the parish community to test positive for coronavirus, according to the Diocese of Brooklyn.
“Although we have been affected disproportionately as a community by the virus, it has also brought the parish together in a sense” parishioner Angel Alcántara told CNN. “These teachings that Father Gioacchino has been giving us for all these years have prepared us for a situation like this.”
Gioacchino was an Italian immigrant, who parishioners say battled health concerns throughout his life. He was ordained in 1995 and was to celebrate his 25th anniversary in the priesthood this year. Almost half of his career was spent at St. Gabriel, according to the Diocese of Brooklyn.
A humble, loving priest
Gioacchino was a humble, loving priest that united the community of St. Gabriel, parishioners said — a community reflective of Queens’ reputation as New York’s most diverse borough.
When Gioacchino joined the parish, it was split evenly between English and Spanish speakers, according to Alcántara.
Now, he says a majority of the community is Hispanic, with parishioners from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Ecuador and elsewhere in Latin America. The English speakers hail from a number of different countries, too, with parishioners representing Haiti, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago to name a few. Gioacchino was able to unite them all, Alcántara said.
“Father Gioacchino was effective in bringing all these different groups of parishioners together,” Alcántara told CNN.
“It was something he was able to achieve, to work with always with God at the center,” he said.
Both Soulama and Alcántara said that Gioacchino had deep, lasting impacts on their lives. Soulama described that when she faced a difficult time in her life when her husband was sick, Gioacchino’s homilies, which she listened to nearly every morning at daily Mass, brought her peace.
“There is nothing to worry about — we just have to trust in the Lord, and then everything will be fine, ” she said of his message.
“We will overcome it knowing that it’s God’s will.”
Separated but still united
This is the attitude that the parish community is bringing to this Easter season — separated from each other because of social distancing during an especially challenging time.
The parish community is uniting over Zoom, Skype and even praying together over the phone to celebrate this season. The parishioners will still sing hymns and will listen to readings but will not receive the Eucharist during Catholicism’s most solemn holiday.
“Obviously it’s different, but the essence of it is still there,” Alcántara told CNN, as he was helping to set up for the virtual Easter vigil to take place Saturday evening.
“Even though the doors are locked, people still call each other, pray over the phone,” Soulama said. “And we learned that from Father Gioacchino.”
The parishioners are sure that Gioacchino continues to pray for them in heaven. Soulama, who would help set up the church for Mass, shared a message he would tell the family at funerals.
“He always said to them, ‘Never say goodbye, just say see you,’ ” Soualama said.
And she also shared the message Gioacchino would give at the end of the funeral Mass.
“He would say, ‘That’s what your loved one wants right now — for you to love one another,’ ” Soualama said.