Recovering from COVID-19, priest led virtual services during local Greek church’s Holy Week

Having come perilously close to death’s door, Father Andrew Cadieux has a new outlook on life. He has a greater appreciation for the little things like something as simple as enjoying a well-brewed cup of coffee in the morning.

“I’ve been enjoying life much, much more than I ever have, and with that enjoyment being very thankful,” he told the News-Review in a phone interview Tuesday. “I think I’m looking at everything differently … It’s not just religion, I’m looking at life differently. I told my wife and some friends, I’m looking at this as a second lease on life. I’m taking the time now to enjoy things, really enjoy things.”

Father Cadieux has a great deal to be thankful for, given what he has been through. The priest, who joined the Transfiguration of Christ Greek Orthodox Church in Mattituck in January, is recovering from a serious bout with COVID-19.

A priest who is happy, who is active, has a desire not to be away from his altar.

Father Andrew Cadieux

Two days after officiating a funeral at the church, Father Cadieux, 50, began feeling ill. His doctor put him on two sets of antibiotics, but the symptoms only worsened. The antibiotics weren’t working.

A strong man who had been healthy was having difficulty breathing. “It felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest,” he said.

Terrible coughing fits made it even more difficult for him to breathe.

“I was terrified,” said Barbara Thermos, vice president of the parish council, recalling hearing the priest’s labored breathing during a phone conversation she had with him around that time. “Listening to him breathe was so upsetting and so frightening. I told him, ‘Father, it’s time to go to the hospital.’ ”

Father Cadieux said he was given oxygen as soon as he was put into an ambulance headed for Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead March 29.

“Was I scared? Yeah, I was,” he said.

Father Cadieux said he was congested with double pneumonia and told he nearly had a collapsed lung and almost needed to be intubated.

As bad as things were, Father Cadieux later learned he had come close to being in an even worse state. He said his wife, Joanne, told him, “You have no idea how close I thought you were to dying.”

With the help of antimalarial medication, the priest’s condition improved to the point where he was discharged from the hospital April 4 and returned, via ambulance, to the parish’s house in Mattituck where oxygen and meals awaited him.

The period from Lent to Greek Orthodox Easter comprises the busiest 50 days on the church calendar. Father Cadieux wanted to be a part of the celebration. Two days after leaving the hospital, he informed Father Andreas Vithoulkas, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, that he would like to officiate the Greek Orthodox Palm Sunday service on April 12. Palm Sunday was the beginning of Holy Week, which concluded with Greek Orthodox Easter this past Sunday.

“He told me, ‘Take it easy, take it easy,’ and I knew I had to do it,” Father Cadieux said. “A priest who is happy, who is active, has a desire not to be away from his altar.”

Others in the parish had similar reactions to the priest’s desire to return to duty so quickly. Holy Week can be demanding, with services, typically lasting two hours, throughout the week (sometimes two a day). Father Cadieux was undeterred.

“He’s a tough guy, let me tell you,” said Anna Flossos, a parish council member.

Palm Sunday was Father Cadieux’s first service since he contracted COVID-19. Ordained in 2003, Father Cadieux figures he has led thousands of services, but this one was particularly memorable. For one thing, he was by himself in an otherwise empty church, with a video camera live streaming the service on Facebook.

“It was humbling. It was wonderful,” he said. “It was uplifting for me to be back at my altar, to thank God for getting me out from death’s waiting room. I was exhausted afterward, to be quite truthful.”

Ms. Flossos said she was driving by the church during that service and was stunned to hear Father Cadieux’s voice over a loudspeaker. “I couldn’t believe he did the whole service alone,” she said.

Ms. Flossos said she was so inspired by his return that she volunteered to act as chanter/reader for him in four services since then.

Easter is the most holy day of the year for the Greek Orthodox Church, and Easter Sunday marked Father Cadieux’s eighth service since his return. Looking good, his voice sounding strong, the only evidence of his prior troubles was an oxygen tank he wheeled beside him when he walked.

Father Cadieux during a recent service on Facebook. (Credit: Transfiguration of Christ Church-Mattituck/Facebook)

Father Cadieux, also a chaplain for the Police Benevolent Association of New York State and the Blue Point Fire Department, said: “I get tired so easily. After that Easter service, I was just wiped.”

Facebook comments were flooded with praying hands and wishes of “perastika,” which means get well soon in Greek.

“I was overwhelmed by the response,” Father Cadieux said. “I was humbled by the response. I didn’t know that I touched this many lives. That’s the thing that humbled me. I felt an outpouring of love.”

Father Cadieux, who resides in Ronkonkoma with his wife and their three children (Elizabeth, Nicholas and Demetrios), is remaining at the parish house in quarantine. He said his doctor thinks he may still be contagious. The priest said he is feeling better, his oxygen levels are better and he has had off-and-on fever.

The church, built on potato fields in 1969, is the spiritual home to about 175 families, said Ms. Thermos. “It’s their bond with their families, their friends’ families, that common denominator that keeps us together,” she said.

What role did religion play in the priest’s recovery?

“I don’t think my religion helped me — I know it did,” Father Cadieux said. “It was not only my faith, it was other people’s faith. I know that God loves me and I know that prayers work because I’ve seen them work … I know without my faith I wouldn’t be here.”

Parishioners are grateful for that.

“It’s inspiring because this thing that’s going on is very scary and to see that he was able to fight it and beat it, it’s inspiring,” Ms. Flossos said. “It shows that there’s hope out there. It’s just not gloom and doom.”