By Bill Miller and Jessica Easthope
The hearse’s backdoor swung open early Tuesday morning, revealing a wooden crate that carried the casket of Father Gioacchino Basile.
The 60-year-old priest, who died in April after a brief battle with COVID-19, was finally going home to his native Italy, now that mountains of red tape were gone.
Indeed, Father Basile himself was undeterred by obstacles, parishioners said.
Nearly 100 people came to see him off; most of them were parishioners from St. Gabriel’s in East Elmhurst, Queens, where Father Basile served since 2008.
On Sept. 8, many recalled how the jovial priest accepted every request, no matter the time of day, or how it might make him late for another commitment. He accommodated them all.
“The word ‘no’ was not in his vocabulary,” said Vivian Castillo.
“The word he did know,” added Regina Dominguez, “was ‘love.’ He loved so thoroughly. He practiced what he preached.”
The parishioners, joined by some of Father Basile’s fellow priests, gathered at the back of the hearse parked outside Sacred Hearts & St. Stephen Church, 125 Summit St., in Brooklyn. It was the last stop before the hearse took the casket to John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Parishioners stood in line, patiently waiting to approach the casket. Most came one-by-one, but a few adults accompanied children. They all stood briefly in silent prayer; some placed hands on the wooden crate’s rough surface.
All wore face masks, but the protective equipment could not conceal tears that welled in many parishioners’ reddened eyes.
Bells chimed for Father Basile as Father Nicholas Apollonio, administrator of St. Gabriel Church, greeted the assembly.
“Death is not the end,” Father Apollonio said. “We can be blessed knowing Gioacchino is with the Lord.
“We share the hope of the children of God as we pray for Gioacchino and those who loved him. That is why we are here.
“The mystery of death should not make us afraid.”
Logistics prompted the send-off to be at Sacred Hearts & St. Stephen Church in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn, instead of Father Basile’s St. Gabriel in Queens. The Carroll Gardens parish is closest to nearby Scotto Funeral Home, which has cared for Father Basile’s remains since his death on April 4.
John Heyer II, a funeral director at the home, explained that the proximity helped him get the hearse to JFK in time for the flight to Rome.
He also described how the global pandemic took a vast toll over Italy, which only recently allowed international flights to land at its airports. Also, the pandemic throttled travel from region to region until recently.
Therefore, Sept.8 was the first opportunity for Father Basile’s casket to leave the U.S. for Italy, Heyer said. The flight to Rome was to be followed by another transport to the priest’s hometown of Reggio, Calabria, Italy, where his sister and brother-in-law still reside.
The seaside community is in the south of Italy, literally on the “toe” of the “boot” — a common expression for the peninsula facing the island of Sicily.
Father Apollonio said Father Basile’s funeral would be later this week at St. Luke’s Church in Reggio, with burial to follow.
Father Basile’s death came one week after the passing of Father Jorge Ortiz-Garay, the first U.S. priest believed to have died from complications associated with the coronavirus.
Father Basile was already on medical leave from his duties as pastor at St. Gabriel’s when he learned he had contracted coronavirus.
Father Basile was trained in the Neocatecumenal Movement and served as the spiritual director of Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Douglaston. He also assisted as a chaplain at LaGuardia Airport.