Father Francisco Valdovinos, ST, was on Spanish language radio throughout December imploring agricultural workers and other listeners to take health and safety precautions, get tested for COVID-19, and receive the vaccine when it arrives.
In tragic turn of events that demonstrated the deadly potential of the virus, Fr. Valdovinos contracted it and was called to eternal rest a month later. After several weeks in intensive care that required breathing assistance, he passed away on Jan. 17.
“What are we to make of this?” Bishop Alberto Rojas asked rhetorically in a statement following Fr. Valdovinos’ death. “We are people of Hope, we believe in the Resurrection and life eternal. Let us take inspiration from Father’s ministry to fight COVID-19 and continue it on in our communities.”
At neighboring Our Lady of Soledad parish in Coachella, Deacon Baltazar Aguirre, ordained just five months ago, was also called home to God on Jan. 20 due to complications from COVID-19.
“The death of Fr. Francisco Valdovinos has brought us to our knees,” said Father Francisco Gomez, ST, Pastor of Our Lady of Soledad. “The death of Baltazar has made being on our knees an act of prayer.”
Both Fr. Valdovinos and Dcn. Aguirre were visible and active ministers to the poor and the sick in their communities. Fr. Valdovinos opened his parish as a COVID-19 testing site in late 2020 and continued to hold drives to distribute food and other essential goods to those in need. He forged working relationships with elected leaders in the Coachella Valley to further his parish’s community reach.
“He was a steadfast and beloved leader in our community,” wrote Congressman Raul Ruiz of Fr. Valdovinos in a Facebook post.
Fr. Valdovinos, a member of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, had ministered at Our Lady of Victory parish in Compton just prior to his assignment in Mecca. While there he welcomed Lestonnac Free Clinic, which now has a presence in the Diocese of San Bernardino.
“Father continually strived to help us see Christ in others and has made a huge impact on me personally,” wrote Ed Gerber, Executive Director of Lestonnac Free Clinic.
As news of his illness spread parishioners took to social media and some held vigil at the hospital where he was receiving care to pray for him. The Mexican-born priest received a visit from a sister in the days leading up to his passing. Having suffered extensive damage to his lungs, he died two days after he was removed from a ventilator. He was 58.
Dcn. Aguirre, described by Fr. Gomez as a humble and faithful servant of the Church from his boyhood days, had recently been visiting mobile home parks within the parish boundaries of Our Lady of Soledad to determine the needs of the people there for food, water, medical care and access to the Internet.
“He estimated there were as many as 5,000 persons living in these trailer parks, persons who needed the Good News proclaimed in their midst - not only by word, but with action,” said Fr. Gomez.
The death of the two popular clergymen underscores the prevalence of the COVID-19 virus in the Eastern Coachella Valley where the infection rate among those tested at parish sites there averages 34 percent.
“Their life of unselfish service to their communities has had a major positive impact on the number now responding to testing sites and, those requesting vaccinations,” said Ann Marie Gallant, Director of the Diocesan Emergency Operations Collaborative.
Of the passing of the two clergymen, Gallant added, “if we can achieve any lesson learned from their respective bouts with this horrific virus, it is the absolute need to seek medical help at the very onset of any symptoms at all – do not dismiss a cough or congestion as just a winter cold. Be proactive….seek professional advice immediately.”
The pandemic also complicates the typical Catholic funeral rites as no public services were held for fear that they would become a “super spreader” event. Fr. Valdovinos’ remains were to be taken to his home country of Mexico. In a video message to the Mecca community, Bishop Rojas pledged to have a large public gathering in remembrance of Fr. Valdovinos once pandemic-related gathering restrictions have been eased.