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Recovered from COVID, a pastor shifts focus to his flock

Father Richard Vigoa reflects on a frightening bout with the disease earlier this year

Father Richard Vigoa, pastoral administrator of St. Augustine Parish in Coral Gables, who recovered from a bout of COVID-19 in March of this year, presides at a wedding at the end of 2019.

Photographer: TOM TRACY Photography

Father Richard Vigoa, pastoral administrator of St. Augustine Parish in Coral Gables, who recovered from a bout of COVID-19 in March of this year, presides at a wedding at the end of 2019.

CORAL GABLES | For the former priest-secretary to Archbishop Thomas Wenski, the worst moments of his bout with COVID-19 came midway through the more than two-week ordeal in early spring.  

Back in late March, the newly appointed administrator of St. Augustine Church and Catholic Student Center near the University of Miami, said he first recalls experiencing digestive upset, soon followed by high fever and uncontrollable chills and shakes. 

“That next morning, I was so fatigued I could barely get up from the couch. I had body aches and headaches,” Father Vigoa told the Florida Catholic by telephone. “I knew I had it and didn’t even bother getting tested, but I did talk to several doctors who immediately put me on (medications).”

But the worst was yet to come, as the illness progressed into something more serious with pneumonia-like symptoms. It seemed serious enough that the priest summoned his spiritual director to hear his confession through his residence window. He also got a full medical workup at that point. 

“I was sick for 16 days but by day 8 I was experiencing some breathing problems and by day 10 a pulmonologist friend asked me to come into the hospital,” Father Vigoa said. He noted that when you heard about COVID-19 in those early days of the pandemic, you might have assumed you were going to die, whereas medical treatments and knowledge about the disease have advanced to some degree since the start of 2020. 

“I went to the hospital for a battery of tests and my doctor said, ‘you are looking good, with some inflammation,’ and that I was over the worst of it and I went home and continued to recover,” he said. “Day 16, on Divine Mercy Sunday, was the first day I actually felt I might be over this.”

“It was a rough 16 days but the silver lining was I really felt a solidarity with people who were sick, afraid, who have lost loved ones to COVID; and I gained an awareness through all of it, wanting to be there for our families.”

Father Richard Vigoa, pastoral administrator of St. Augustine Parish in Coral Gables, was featured in a local PBS special, "Healing through Faith," which aired Dec. 9, 2020. You can watch it at this link: https://bit.ly/MiamiPBSVigoa.

Photographer: Screenshot

Father Richard Vigoa, pastoral administrator of St. Augustine Parish in Coral Gables, was featured in a local PBS special, "Healing through Faith," which aired Dec. 9, 2020. You can watch it at this link: https://bit.ly/MiamiPBSVigoa.

Large numbers of South Floridians have suffered infection and illness with COVID-19, and Father Vigoa’s parish community is no exception. Quite a few parishioners have been ill and several have died, he said. 

The Cuban American priest has presided at a number of funerals for persons with COVID, including for one 63-year-old parishioner who died last month.  

“We pray for those who are sick with COVID and their families every day at Mass,” Father Vigoa said, noting that at the funeral Masses he chooses not to focus on the nature of their illness during his sermon but rather the person’s faith life and journey.

“There is always a silver lining to these tragedies and moments in time — there is a reset or pause button and this one is important and can teach us something if we are asking how we can grow from this: We have learned how to be Church in a new way and this may make us a better Church,” he said. 

 

‘PIVOTAL MOMENT’

Despite hopes for an array of effective and safe vaccines coming online soon, the pandemic crisis is far from over: after a late summer lull in the hospitalization rates, the crisis has come roaring back and is predicted to bring difficulties well into next year. Dr. Robert Redfield, director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has issued a stark warning as winter looms and coronavirus hospitalizations surge.

“We are at a very pivotal moment in this pandemic unfortunately — we are experiencing a substantial surge across the nation with a significant number of jurisdictions and states in what we call the red zone,” Dr. Redfield said Dec. 2, 2020, during a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation online forum. 

The pandemic is showing a resurgence particularly in the Midwest and Sun Belt states, he said. 

“The reality is December, January and February are going to be rough times — I actually believe they will be the most difficult time in the public health history of our nation largely because of the stress that it will put on our healthcare systems,” he said. 

Dr. Redfield called for moving more activities outdoors and for observing all the other prescribed pandemic mitigation tools. He said he believes much of the transmission drivers are not so much the public square but rather home gatherings when families let down their guard with asymptomatic persons. 

Father Richard Vigoa, pastoral administrator of St. Augustine Parish in Coral Gables, said the COVID-19 crisis has hastened changes and technological advancements in digital outreach at the parish. He now hosts an online parish town hall once a week, inviting special guests to share information with parishioners.

Photographer: Screenshot

Father Richard Vigoa, pastoral administrator of St. Augustine Parish in Coral Gables, said the COVID-19 crisis has hastened changes and technological advancements in digital outreach at the parish. He now hosts an online parish town hall once a week, inviting special guests to share information with parishioners.

Father Richard Vigoa, pastoral administrator of St. Augustine Parish in Coral Gables, said the COVID-19 crisis has hastened changes and technological advancements in digital outreach at the parish. He now hosts an online program, Bless this Kitchen, once a week, sharing lunch with parishioners to introduce them to the rest of the community.

Photographer: Screenshot

Father Richard Vigoa, pastoral administrator of St. Augustine Parish in Coral Gables, said the COVID-19 crisis has hastened changes and technological advancements in digital outreach at the parish. He now hosts an online program, Bless this Kitchen, once a week, sharing lunch with parishioners to introduce them to the rest of the community.

For his part, Father Vigoa said his experiences with COVID have only strengthened both his practical and pastoral views on the crisis: “I think it is very serious and people need to adhere to the precautions and guidelines being put forth: wearing masks, washing their hands, social distancing.”

“I don’t believe people are getting COVID at Mass but in their own homes from grandchildren or family members who come to visit,” he added. “But I do think there is a light at the end of the tunnel with the new pharmaceuticals coming out as the science and treatments evolve.”

“But it can attack people with underlying health issues,” the priest cautioned. “As Christians we always look to the other and how I should act so that I protect others. Even if (someone) doesn’t believe in wearing masks, I do it anyway because it makes the other person feel safe and hopefully protects others.”

 

DIGITAL OUTREACH

The COVID-19 crisis has hastened changes and technological advancements in digital outreach at the parish, Father Vigoa has said. 

The parish is streaming daily Mass online and has developed an array of online talk-show style and music ministry programming in step with its emphasis on the New Evangelization. 

“Every week we release videos to help people pray,” Father Vigoa said. “I send videos to my parishioners, I send emails, we text message them every day. The parishioners now feel this is part of how they get their information.”

“And I stole an idea for a neighborhood outreach in which we bring our neighbors gifts, goody bags, prayer cards, copies of the Florida Catholic — we go through this huge area of Coral Gables with this door-to-door evangelization outreach.”

As for campus ministry with the university students, that has proven challenging as they have shown a preference for in-person gatherings rather than online evangelization. 

“We were on fire running on every cylinder with campus ministry doing so well before the pandemic,” Father Vigoa said. “Now we have to model a lot of what we are doing for the parish for the students — but with college students it is more about (personal) contact and so we are planning Mass and concerts outdoors.”

Comments from readers

MARIA MARTINEZ - 12/18/2020 02:55 PM
Thank you very much Father Vigoa for sharing with us your Covid-19 experience. As part of St. Augustine Catholic Church and Student Center Family it is very important for all to share our experiences among us, it makes us closer to each other. We were blessed you were able to recuperate from what you called " The Monster " on Sunday Mass. Now more than ever we need to be closer to God and each other to achieve the Strength needed to live day by day. We will continue to pray, The Lord keep you Safe. May Peace and Health be with you Father Vigoa, Father Tran, Deacon Chirino and the rest of the Staff always. Have a Blessed and Merry Christmas !
marilyn g charles - 12/16/2020 01:23 PM
I was so sorry to hear that Fr. Vigoa became ill with the vrus. God Bless him and keep him well. I knew Fr. Vigoa while he was at the Archdiocese and saying mass at St. Martha's. I am so happy for him and happy for the students at U M. Father is a special human being. God Bless you Father and have a healthy Blessed Christmas. Marilyn Charles, Miami Shores.
Carla Boccuti - 12/15/2020 03:24 PM
St.Augustine and Father Vigoa and Father Tran and Deacon Chirino are the best parish I have ever been to in my 69 years. They have worked tirelessly under the direction of Father Vigoa during this pandemic. Every single thing they do from online mass to online special events and of course the amazing Justin and the music and just everything that they do. It is beyond amazing. We are so blessed to have them. After this is all over we must find a special way to thank these blessed amazing people. I live and pray for each and ever one of them. God Bless you. 🙏😇😷♥️🎄✌️😇😷😷♥️
Vilma Angulo - 12/15/2020 10:49 AM
St. Augustine Parish and Fr. Vigoa have been a lifeline during this pandemic. After a lifetime of working in parish ministry and being active in all aspects of parish life it was heartbreaking for me to have to stay at home. I am immune compromised because of cancer treatments and didn’t know how I was going to stay connected to my faith during a time when I needed God the most. Fr. Vigoa’s zeal for bridging that huge abyss was impressive. The weekly Town Hall meetings not only kept us informed on church closings, but his invited speakers shared their expertise on coping with anxiety and isolation when we we had the “stay at home” orders. Fr. Vigoa’s creativity in setting up confessions and Adoration, prayerful daily and weekly liturgies that nourished our souls, an incredible Parish Mission that was live streamed for 3 nights and even parish community service opportunities have been provided. Have I missed going to church? With ALL MY HEART! Do I miss receiving the Eucharist? With ALL MY BEING! Do I feel I’m still a part of my church community? ABSOLUTELY. Fr. Vigoa shepherds his flock and nourishes them with opportunities to grow in faith even from home. His presence to us has INCREASED with weekly videos and texts. Not decreased! Many have wondered what kind of parish they will be returning to. I’m not worried...St. Augustine has kept me enveloped in their parish arms! It never left me behind! I know what I will be returning to ...an even more active and dynamic parish!

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