July 17, 2020

Recovered from coronavirus, retired priest finds joy in community

Father John Geis celebrates Mass on July 5 at St. Maurice Church in Napoleon. The 84-year-old retired priest has been a sacramental minister at the Batesville Deanery faith community since 2011. He is the only archdiocesan priest thus far to have tested positive for the coronavirus. He was diagnosed with it in April, but was able to return to Napoleon to celebrate Mass on June 7. (Submitted photo)

Father John Geis celebrates Mass on July 5 at St. Maurice Church in Napoleon. The 84-year-old retired priest has been a sacramental minister at the Batesville Deanery faith community since 2011. He is the only archdiocesan priest thus far to have tested positive for the coronavirus. He was diagnosed with it in April, but was able to return to Napoleon to celebrate Mass on June 7. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

As he approached Holy Week in early April, retired Father John Geis started to carry his own cross.

The 84-year-old priest began experiencing symptoms of the coronavirus. He lives in Decatur County which, at the time, was a “hot spot” in the state for infections of the virus.

He was soon tested for the virus in Batesville and learned on April 6, Monday of Holy Week, that he had tested positive. His condition was good enough, though, that he did not have to be hospitalized and was able to remain at home. He lived there with his brother Albert, who had also tested positive and later recovered.

He is the only archdiocesan priest thus far to have tested positive for the virus.

Throughout the solemn days leading up to Easter, Father Geis ran a fever. Breathing deeply was difficult. And he had little energy so accomplishing even the smallest tasks was a challenge.

“It really took the sap out of you,” he said.

Father Geis turned a corner, however, on April 12, Easter Sunday. That evening was the first time in about a week that Father Geis no longer had a fever.

“It was wonderful,” he recalled in a recent interview with The Criterion. “It gave me life. I felt that I was going to recover from this. I guess the Lord wanted me to get back to work.”

Work for the past nine years for him has included being a sacramental minister for St. Maurice Parish in Napoleon.

As he suffered from the virus, Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth, St. Maurice’s parish life coordinator, kept in touch with him.

“It was sad news,” she said. “Father John and I had been friends for a long time. I was very fearful that he might end up in a hospital on a ventilator. So, I was most grateful that that didn’t happen.”

Considering his age, previous health challenges he had experienced and that he was living in an area of the state especially hard hit by the virus at the time, the virus posed a real danger to Father Geis’ life. But he wasn’t worried.

“It didn’t bother me all that much,” he said. “I guess I thought about [the possibility of dying], but I didn’t dwell on it. I just wanted to get better.”

Sister Shirley and her parishioners, as well as relatives of Father Geis, were determined to do all they could to help him. Meals were prepared for him and delivered to his home. He also received more than 125 cards expressing parishioners’ prayers and support.

“Maybe that’s why I got better,” Father Geis said with a laugh. “God got tired of hearing people praying for me.”

His own prayer was important to him as he suffered from the virus.

“Going through this brought me closer to God,” Father Geis said. “You depend on his grace, help and healing. God is good. He’s got things in control whether we think so or not.”

He celebrated Mass at home by himself, but the experience helped him recognize the importance of praying with parishioners.

“Celebrating with the community in prayer, is really, for me, the thing that I missed the most,” Father Geis said. “I said Mass here at home. And I appreciated that privilege. But it’s just not like celebrating it with people.”

Prayer remained important for him as he recovered. Even though he suffered with symptoms of the coronavirus for a little more than a week, his recovery time took several weeks.

“It took me a while to get back on my feet again,” he said. “I was totally out of breath. I’d try to go out to walk, and I’d be huffing and puffing trying to get my breath back.”

He had recovered enough that he could return to St. Maurice and celebrate Mass with the parish on June 7, Trinity Sunday.

“It was just a joy to be with the people and to celebrate God’s presence,” Father Geis said. “It really stood out for me. What an experience.”

“I’m not sure if I can put it into words,” said Sister Shirley. “It was so good to see him celebrate the Eucharist. I knew he had such a desire to do that. It was so good to have him back.”

Mary Bultman, a member of St. Maurice Parish, shared in the joy of having back the priest who has celebrated the sacraments in the Batesville Deanery faith community.

“Everybody felt so happy to see him and welcome him back,” Bultman said. “He’s part of our family. We missed him when he wasn’t there. For him to recover from COVID at his age and health situation was like a miracle.” †

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