By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator  

As families grapple with the death of one or more loved ones because of the coronavirus pandemic, church parishes in the Diocese of Baton Rouge are putting their arms around them in a way that transcends social distancing by meeting them at the foot of the cross.  

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April Dunn, left, is pictured with Melanie Washington, who was her colleague in the Governor’s Office of Disability Affairs. Dunn spent much her young life as a proponent of the rights of the disabled before she died from the coronavirus on March 28. Photo provided by Bambi Polotzola 


Among the parishes hit hard by the virus include St. Paul the Apostle Church in Baton Rouge, whose congregation is primarily African American, a high-risk population for the virus. St. Paul lost three of its members, with at least one family experiencing multiple deaths caused by COVID-19.  

On March 15, St. Paul member James Rodney, 92, told his sister and fellow parishioner Sylvia Trahan he wasn’t feeling well but that it was “just a cold.” As his health deteriorated, he insisted he was “feeling okay.” 

After Rodney fell twice, his wife, Barbara, called 911 and Rodney was admitted to a local hospital diagnosed with the coronavirus.  

Shortly afterwards, the Rodney’s son, Keith Rodney of Opelousas, checked on his mother and noticed she looked ill. He brought her to the doctor, and she was admitted to the same hospital as her husband.  

James Rodney died April 9. 

Soon after, Keith exhibited coronavirus symptoms but did not want to be admitted to the hospital. Keith died at home April 14, leaving behind a wife, son and numerous relatives.  

With her husband of 62 years and her son both succumbing to the virus dead, Barbara asked the nurses to help her call St. Paul pastor Father Rick Andrus SVD.  

“She needed someone to talk with and was crying and so was I. It was so hard because I could not be with her and encourage her,” said Father Andrus. “She said, ‘Thank you for praying.’ ”  

Barbara recently returned home but is using an oxygen tank. Family and healthcare representatives are taking care of her.  

Trahan, whose backyard bumps up to her brother’s backyard, misses visiting with her brother and her godfather, whom she called “Parrain.”  

Because of her close contact with Rodney, Trahan was quarantined in her room and could not attend Rodney’s graveside funeral, officiated by Father Andrus, at St. Augustine Church in New Roads, the sibling’s childhood parish. But she provided Rodney’s burial clothes from her husband’s closet.  

“I asked them to take a picture of him in the suit and send it to me,” said Trahan.  

She proudly talked about Rodney’s legacy. He served in the Army and received a Purple Heart with one cluster, four Bronze Stars and a Combat Infantry Badge. He participated in the Berlin Airlift that supplied goods to West Berliners.  Rodney was saluted for his military service by the playing of Taps at his funeral.  

At St. Paul, Rodney was a member of the Knights of Peter Claver and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. He served his community as executive director of Capitol Park Community Development Corporation. </span id=”16″>

“I don’t know how he was able to do all the things he did,” said Trahan, who believed Rodney’s energy came from his generous heart.  

The death of parishioner Byron Buggage Sr. underscores the importance of cherishing time with loved ones because “you never know” what tomorrow brings, according to Buggage’s wife, Yvonne.  

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James Rodney


On March 14, Byron was coughing and said he was “going to take a nap.”  

The next day Byron appeared to feel “somewhat better” and he and his son, Byron Buggage Jr., a real estate appraiser like his dad, looked over documents.  

When Byron woke on March 15 with a fever, Yvonne took him to a coronavirus testing site. Byron had taken pain and fever reducing medication, so he did not register a fever.  

On the way home Byron said he felt better. Yvonne knew something was wrong when she looked at him sitting in a recliner later.  

“I’m a retired nurse. I looked at his (heaving) chest and said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’m calling 911.’ He had a totally different look than just hours before,” said Yvonne.  

She and her daughter, Britney, followed the ambulance to the hospital.  

The doctor later told Yvonne and Britney that Byron was on a ventilator.  

“He said, ‘He’s a very sick man,’ ” Yvonne said.  

She said Byron was “up and down all week.” He was sedated, but the nurses used FaceTime so she could see him. 

Byron died March 22.  

The heartache for the Buggage family continued when Byron’s mother, Marine “Maw Maw” Buggage, died from the coronavirus in New Orleans on April 7. 

Byron and Yvonne would have celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this month.  

“I love the way we loved each other,” Yvonne said. “With all the little ups and downs of marriage we made it through.”  

Yvonne has “teary moments” when she straightens up and rearranges the house.  

“I didn’t see this coming,” Yvonne said. “The most difficult time I had with losing Byron was not being able to be by his side. That has really been very hard to deal with.”  

Britney misses drinking coffee with her dad in the morning and talking to him at night.  

A nurse like her mom, Britney is taking time off from work to grieve but said she will return with a new mindset.  

She and her mother stressed it’s important to appreciate your loved ones and tell them, “I love you.”  

They also appreciate their St. Paul family.  

“We are so blessed to have St. Paul in our family,” said Yvonne. “I had church members reach out and call, it’s meant so much to me.”  

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Byron Buggage

She said “once things settle down” the family plans to have a memorial service at St. Paul.  

St. Paul has also mourned the passing of April Dunn, who was “a champion for people with disabilities” in her short 33 years of life.  Dunn, who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and cerebral palsy, struggled to find meaningful employment and became a strong advocate for more inclusive educational and employment rights for the disabled. She was instrumental in the passage of Act 833 of 2014 which provides an alternative pathway to a diploma for individuals with disabilities. In 2018 Gov. John Bel Edwards appointed Dunn chair of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council. <

Joanette Dunn, who adopted April when she was five months old after her biological mother put her up for adoption, said April was a role model for people in overcoming challenges.  

“She never gave up and would never take no for an answer,” said Joanette.  

St. Paul will celebrate a memorial Mass for Dunn on July 31. Edwards is scheduled to speak at the Mass.