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Retired priest dies from COVID-19 at Little Sisters of the Poor near Newark

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The Rev. Hilary John Rodgers

The Rev. Hilary John Rodgers, 75, died from COVID-19 on April 1.

A retired priest has died from complications of COVID-19 at the Little Sisters of the Poor’s Jeanne Jugan Residence near Newark.

The Rev. Hilary John Rodgers, 75, died Wednesday, according to Bob Krebs, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. Rodgers is the fourth person to die from the coronavirus at the Jeanne Jugan Residence, which has seen an outbreak of at least seven cases.

“Father Hilary was a warm and caring priest. He was dearly loved by the people he served over his many years of ministry as a priest and religious brother,” the Most Reverend W. Francis Malooly, Bishop of the Diocese of Wilmington, said in a prepared statement. “We send our condolences to his brother, Richard, and pledge our continued prayers to the Little Sisters and residents of Jeanne Jugan during this sad and difficult time.”

A native of New York, Rodgers served for 35 years as a Capucin Franciscan Friar, in Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Virginia. In 2000, he was accepted into priestly formation for Diocese of Wilmington and began theological studies at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass.

He was ordained in 2004 by Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli and initially served as associate pastor at St. Helena and St. Mary Magdalen Churches in Wilmington. In 2010, he was appointed pastor of St. Benedict Church in Ridgely, Md., and its mission church, St. Elizabeth in Denton, Md. He became the Pastor of Holy Spirit Church in New Castle in 2014 and retired in 2015.

“A man of unfailing joy who loved to serve his people as a priest — to him there was no greater joy than serving his people,” said the Rev. Brian Lewis, pastor of St. Benedict/St. Elizabeth parish. “He always maintained that Franciscan heart of joy and generosity and lived St. Francis’ words, ‘Peace and all good.’”

Deacon Bill Nickum, of Denton, remembered Rodgers as a gentle soul, with a big grin. His smile would light up his face, said Nickum, who recalled “Father Hilary,” as Rodgers was affectionately known, had been a monk for many, many years, serving the homeless among others before he decided to pursue the priesthood.

Rodgers wanted to be able to celebrate the sacraments, including marriage, and share in those joys, Nickum said.

“He was such a good soul and so big-hearted, we were sad to lose him when he went back to Wilmington,” Nickum said. “We considered ourselves very fortunate to have had him here.”

Located on Salem Church Road, the Jeanne Jugan Residence serves 66 low-income seniors and includes nursing care rooms, independent living apartments and rehabilitation facilities. There are 11 Little Sisters of the Poor and 123 staff members at the facility.

Krebs noted the nursing home has “been hit especially hard” by the coronavirus pandemic. The facility reported its first death March 26, when an 86-year-old man died. A female resident died March 29, and another died March 31, according to Sister Constance Veit, communications director for Little Sisters of the Poor. The women were 87 and 94 years old, according to information from state health officials.

“All residents are required to more or less stay in their rooms,” Veit said. “This is due to the virus and the national social distancing mandate.”

She said that the more independent residents are allowed to leave their rooms to take a walk, do laundry and other similar tasks but are otherwise being asked to stay in their rooms and maintain social distancing.

“At this point, all of the infirm residents (those in the two nursing units) are being cared for with the full precautions, as if they were infected, out of an abundance of caution,” she said. “This does not mean they all are infected, but this is out of caution for everyone.”

Veit touted the work of the staff at the nursing home and said that some procedures they have implemented are becoming more efficient and falling into place. She noted that the facility has also been able to transmit the daily rosary and mass for the residents over closed-circuit TV.

“If people are interested in supporting us, the most important thing is prayer," Veit said. “After that, the greatest need is for PPE. Most people in the community would not have access to the required masks and gowns, but if there is anyone in the medical/healthcare community who could help with that. it would be most appreciated, even small quantities."

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Reporters William Carroll and Hannah Combs contributed to this article.

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