Standing in an empty church office, surrounded by glass barriers that were installed as a coronavirus safety measure, the Rev. Jesus Zamarripa of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in East Los Angeles looked over the paperwork for the two funeral Masses he would offer over the weekend. Both of the deceased were victims of Covid-19.
Father Zamarripa has been a priest at the church for seven years. Originally from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, he said that as a child he was drawn to a life of service, “When I was very young I saw videos of missionaries helping people and since then my intention was to go to another country and help the poor.”
After high school he went to seminary, but before finishing his studies he moved to Southern California, where he worked in the hotel and shipping industries. After five years, he felt unfulfilled: “I’m not doing what I want to do in my life,” he said. “I’m not helping anybody, so I decided to go back to the seminary.”
He was ordained as a priest in 2001.
Father Zamarripa now finds himself in the middle of another crisis. His church is in East Los Angeles, a predominantly Latino neighborhood hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic. According to New York Times data, one in five people in the neighborhood have been infected, and one in 418 have died.
Father Zamarripa contracted the virus himself last summer. At first, he didn’t feel very sick — “I thought I just had allergies,” he said — but he was later hospitalized, spending five days on oxygen.
Even after he was released, he felt like his heart was struggling, and he hardly ate or drank for 10 days after he returned home. To protect the people around him, he isolated himself for a month, which he said was a hard experience.
But the hospital stay helped focus Father Zamarripa’s thoughts.
“It’s a contradiction, but I saw this as an experience to get closer to God,” he said. “Sometimes here at the parish we run around from one place to another, but at the hospital I couldn’t go anywhere, so I prayed a lot.”
Feeling a renewed connection to his congregation, Father Zamarripa now leads services in the church’s parking lot, which has been converted into an airy and shaded outdoor chapel. “Prior to the pandemic, a single mass would bring around 750 people and now around 120 people show up,” he said. “People are afraid.”
The first funeral Mass on this warm and bright Saturday afternoon is for Herminio Paz, 50, who died after a monthlong battle with the virus. Mr. Paz’s daughter Mireya Paz entered the covered parking area carrying an urn topped with a model motorcycle that contained her father’s ashes.
“My father made an impact on so many lives and always lived life to the fullest,” she said. She also talked about how he came home excitedly one day to show off a new present he had bought himself: a motorcycle.
“Do you even know how to ride that thing?” she remembered asking him.
Mr. Paz, an immigrant from Puebla, Mexico, had a job making tortillas in a factory. Although he had no formal education, he always emphasized its importance to his three daughters. Mireya, 30, is the eldest and works as an elementary teacher for the Los Angeles schools.
After Mr. Paz’s funeral Mass, a line forms for the second Mass, for another victim of Covid-19.
Although he has recovered from his bout with the disease, Father Zamarripa said he still feels its effects.
“Everyone is suffering during the pandemic, but we need to support each other and we need to be more passionate with those around us.”