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‘We started weeping in April, and we haven’t stopped’: Baltimore’s Latino community racked by coronavirus

Bishop Bruce A. Lewandowski, pastor of Sacred Heart Church of Jesus, speaks about the 36 parishioners they've lost to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

They wanted to hold the ceremony outside that November night, but it was too cold and windy. So the parishioners gathered in their beloved Highlandtown church, where red candles with the names of loved ones were lit along the altar. They watched as their pastor walked solemnly up the aisle, stepping over the tape marked for social distancing. Then he turned to face the congregation and began to call out, one by one, the names of the parish’s dead.

Relatives huddled against one another. Some cried. The list of the deceased for the All Souls Day service at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church was much longer than normal. Under the painting of St. Joseph, patron saint of a happy death, was an ofrenda, or altar, with 36 white crosses — one for each parishioner who has died from COVID-19.

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Bishop Bruce Lewandowski gives a sermon to his parish. Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Highlandtown holds an All Souls Day Mass, honoring the members of its parish who have died in 2020.
Bishop Bruce Lewandowski gives a sermon to his parish. Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Highlandtown holds an All Souls Day Mass, honoring the members of its parish who have died in 2020. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

In a parish of mostly young Latino families, the congregation has grappled with death after death this year. More than two dozen of the families weren’t allowed to hold funerals inside the East Baltimore church. The rituals of overnight vigils, of eating and hugging and remembering, were lost. Instead, because of the pandemic, they gathered in the parish’s Dundalk cemetery, with the priest speaking prayers through a megaphone. Loved ones stood nearby, often unable to even touch.

“We started weeping in April, and we haven’t stopped weeping, and you wonder, how many tears can a community cry?” said Bishop Bruce A. Lewandowski, pastor of Sacred Heart, who noted that funerals are rare in Baltimore’s Latino community because its members are so young. “Before COVID, on a rare occasion, somebody died in a car accident or a construction mishap.”

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The church’s sorrow is part of the devastating impact of COVID-19 on Latino families in Baltimore and nationwide, underscoring long-standing health and social inequities.

Between March and May, in the Johns Hopkins Health System, 42.6% of Latino patients tested for COVID-19 had positive results, compared with 17.6% of Black patients and 8.8% of white patients, according to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine. In October, in 20 of 44 U.S. states tracking COVID-19 by ethnicity, the proportion of cases among Latinos was at least double what would be expected on the basis of population, and in 11 states, it was more than three times as high. In Maryland, Latinos represent 10% of the state’s population but 23% of COVID-19 cases. Death rates are also disproportionately high.

Doctors and advocates say the spread of COVID-19 within the Latino community has been driven by the need to work, crowded living conditions, and the lack of workplace protections and regular medical care.

“This is what happens when you systematically ignore a group of people,” said Dr. Kathleen Page, a Hopkins physician and director of Centro SOL, a health and community center for Latinos and immigrants.

“I don’t know why anyone is surprised that we’re seeing these disparities now. I just hope that we learn from them.”

A parish of immigrants

The tall stone Roman Catholic church built in 1873 anchors the corner at Conkling and Foster streets. Generations of immigrants have filled the pews: first Germans, then Polish and Italians.

Today, Sacred Heart of Jesus is a mostly Latino congregation serving 3,500 parishioners. It is a place used to big celebrations: First Communions, Quinceañeras and Holy Week processions. For Hispanic Heritage Month in October, it typically would have a party every Friday to celebrate different Latin American countries. This year, the pastor organized caravans instead.

On Nov. 2, All Souls Day would normally have seen 400 parishioners packing the pews, followed by a celebration in the church’s basement. This year, to spread out the people, services were split between Sacred Heart and neighboring St. Patrick’s Church and streamed online.

The first sign of trouble started in January, when a Guatemalan mother of two had severe flu-like symptoms and was hospitalized after being unable to breathe. She died at 26 years old. In the months after, her husband became convinced that her death was related to COVID-19.

Then in March, more parishioners began to get sick. Three died.

In April, four died. Sacred Heart staff, along with BUILD, an interfaith, nonpartisan community group, started a food distribution with 18 drivers delivering 800 boxes to families a week. One way the church knew which families to add to the list: They’d called the rectory, asking Lewandowski to pray for them.

By May, when leaders realized that Latinos did not feel comfortable going to the regular testing sites, the Baltimore health department and BUILD started free COVID testing in the Sacred Heart parking lot. Over the summer, 400 to 600 patients a week showed up for testing there.

Within the Sacred Heart community, six people died of COVID in May.

Speaking in Spanish, a parishioner named María said her husband got sick with the coronavirus in May while working in construction. María, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said the company did not provide protective equipment or testing when employees became infected with COVID-19.

Her husband quarantined in the bedroom of their Essex home for four days, with family members texting him and leaving food outside the door. On the fifth day, her husband had trouble breathing. He was hospitalized and put on a ventilator for three weeks. He survived but had to relearn how to walk and is still not able to work.

“I see it as a miracle,” María said of his recovery, noting she and her son also got the coronavirus. They, too, recovered, though she still feels weak.

“I have not lacked food or suffered financially, because during that time, many people were helping us, the church and friends,” María said. “We don’t feel so alone.”

Another parishioner, José Ángel Portillo Castillo, a 53-year-old liquor store clerk, also wound up getting COVID-19 in May. He had an underlying condition, Myasthenia Gravis, a rare disease that causes muscle weakness.

“He started getting pneumonia, and then everything started failing. So it went from his lungs to his liver to his heart,” said his daughter, Yessica Rodriguez, 23.

José Ángel Portillo Castillo, 53, was one of the parishioners of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Highlandtown. He died of COVID-19 in June.
José Ángel Portillo Castillo, 53, was one of the parishioners of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Highlandtown. He died of COVID-19 in June. (Karina Rodriguez Portillo/Karina Rodriguez Portillo, handout)

At first, her father was afraid to seek medical care and didn’t want to go to a hospital; he was uninsured, though he wound up getting coverage through Priority Partners, which offers low- and no-cost health care services for Maryland residents.

Castillo died in June, one of seven parishioners who died of COVID that month. The family wasn’t able to say goodbye in person.

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Calls to the funeral home

Across the street from the church, at the Lilly & Zeiler Funeral Home, the phone of Spanish interpreter Marvin Pineda has been buzzing. Most of the parishioners he’s helped, who lost loved ones to COVID, are immigrants from México, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

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“I am the only Latino working here in the area in the funeral homes,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “So a lot of people know me, and instead of calling the funeral home, they call my cellphone.”

For parishioner Isaías Cortina Muñoz, 58, a bricklayer who lived in Baltimore for 20 years, the illness started with days of fever, sore throat and a cold in early June.

“I feel very bad, but I am afraid, because my partner died a month ago in the hospital, and I don’t want to go,” Muñoz told his sister-in-law, Leovigilda Águila.

Isaías Cortina Muñoz, a bricklayer who lived in Baltimore for 20 years, died of COVID-19 in July. He is pictured with his daughter at Patterson Park. She was able to hold his hand when he died, one of 36 parishioners of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church who passed away, victims of the pandemic. Photo credit: Leovigilda Águila
Isaías Cortina Muñoz, a bricklayer who lived in Baltimore for 20 years, died of COVID-19 in July. He is pictured with his daughter at Patterson Park. She was able to hold his hand when he died, one of 36 parishioners of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church who passed away, victims of the pandemic. Photo credit: Leovigilda Águila (Leovigilda Águila/Leovigilda Águila, handout)

By the time he checked into St. Joseph Medical Center, he had severe pneumonia. When transported to the University of Maryland Hospital three days later, he was unconscious.

“Despite having a loss, we were very fortunate because he could pass on while holding his daughter’s hand,” Águila said. “There are people who never saw their family again.”

In July, a funeral Mass was held at Sacred Heart for Muñoz. He was one of six church members who died that month of COVID.

“After you suffer the sadness, the loss, comes the economic problem,” said Águila. “We sometimes have no preparation to say, ‘One day I will no longer be here, and how am I going to pay for it?’ ”

All told, the funerals cost more than many families can handle, roughly $8,000 to $10,000, said Lewandowski, the Sacred Heart of Jesus pastor. The church was able to give families some limited financial help. Some relatives also resorted to putting up donation boxes around the neighborhood, asking for the community to chip in.

They also had to figure out where to bury loved ones who, because of the pandemic, couldn’t be taken back to their home countries.

Águila’s brother-in-law’s ashes were kept in her home until August, when her niece was able to fly home with the remains.

Though Castillo lived in Baltimore for years, he wanted to be buried in El Salvador. His family, too, cremated the remains; they plan to fly abroad when the pandemic is over.

Yet the family is “barely making it,” according to daughter Rodriguez. Her mother cleans at the airport and Rodriguez recently started a part-time job as a lab technician.

At the moment, the family has a private altar at home and honored Castillo’s memory during the All Souls Day Mass at Sacred Heart.

By October, when the 36th parishioner passed away, relatives couldn’t send the body back to El Salvador because the country is no longer accepting remains. Another parishioner’s children, nieces and nephews packed into a car and drove her cremated remains all the way to Oaxaca, México. The trip took 40 hours.

Invisible, and vulnerable

Compared with the Latino population nationally, those in Baltimore are more likely to be foreign-born and have low incomes, low educational attainment and limited English proficiency, said Page of Centro SOL. Many work in low-wage essential jobs like construction and cleaning, and they may not have health insurance or be eligible for benefits. Some may delay going to the hospital because of worries about medical bills or immigration status.

There’s also a stigma around COVID, Lewandowski said. “If people know you have COVID, you can’t go back to work,” he said.

Members of Baltimore’s immigrant community infected with COVID-19 were offered free housing and food at the city’s isolation center at the Lord Baltimore Hotel. But advocates said some thought it sounded too good to be true, and they turned it down.

“This group experiences a level of distrust of government, of public health, and therefore might be less likely to seek care,” said Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa. “They’re concerned that we would potentially have individuals in a location that they can’t leave, and what if ICE showed up?”

In April, 61% of Hispanics and 44% of Black Americans reported that they or someone in their household experienced job or wage loss because of COVID-19. According to the same study by Pew Research Center, 44% of Hispanics indicated in May they could not pay some of their bills or could only make partial payments.

The Latino undocumented community, in particular, is invisible, vulnerable and left to the mercy of nonprofits that are stressed thin, said Maryland state Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, vice chair of the legislature’s Latino caucus.

“A lot of the programs that I will often refer Black and Caucasian constituents [to], the Latino undocumented community cannot have access,” said Peña-Melnyk, a Democrat who represents portions of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties. “They didn’t get a stimulus check. They cannot apply for unemployment, although they work and pay taxes.”

Rallying to help

Latino advocates in Baltimore and beyond have been rallying. The city health department has hired Spanish-speakers who have reached hundreds of Latinos through contact tracing and outreach. CASA de Maryland, an advocacy and assistance organization, has a COVID response team that connects Baltimoreans with cash assistance, food distributions and other help. Three task forces made up of government and nonprofit agencies are also working to try to direct limited resources to those who need them.

The Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus is pushing for the state to create a fund to help immigrants affected by COVID-19, Peña-Melnyk said.

Many fear the worst is yet to come.

At Sacred Heart of Jesus, more than 20 parishioners are isolating at home with COVID-19, Lewandowski says. Just this month, he said a morning prayer over the phone to an elderly couple both hospitalized with the disease.

Shadowing him are the words he’s had to say over video calls to dying parishioners in Johns Hopkins Bayview’s COVID unit: “Into your hands, father of mercy, we commend our sister … ”

The priest hasn’t uttered those words for the last few weeks. He is praying he doesn’t have to whisper them again.

Bruce Lewandowski, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, stands in the church cemetery. The church has lost 36 parishioners to the coronavirus pandemic. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Bruce Lewandowski, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, stands in the church cemetery. The church has lost 36 parishioners to the coronavirus pandemic. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Stephanie Garcia is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her at @HagiaStephia.

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