OGDEN — Rene Rodillas, growing up in modest circumstances in his native Philippines, led a simple life, even into adulthood.
“He would even grow his own food. He had a garden,” said John Valdez.
And now, with his death late last week — Rodillas had tested positive for COVID-19 only days before his passing — Valdez and others are recalling a smiling, gentle man who was full of faith and welcoming to all around him.
“He was not extravagant in anything except in his love of God and his people,” said Valdez, a parishioner at St. James, where Rodillas had served since the summer of 2019. “When you look at his picture, always a big smile ... Everybody was made to feel welcome by him. You could tell the Lord was in him.”
Jennifer Karrick, secretary at St. Olaf, where Rodillas served before moving to Ogden, offered a similar assessment. Parishioners at the Bountiful church remembered him at the Mass there last Sunday with music, singing and prayer.
“Everyone’s heartbroken,” Karrick said. “Father Rene was a lovely, lovely man. He was very personable ... He was always smiling, knew his parishioners well. They loved him.”
Rodillas, 58, had tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 5 and was sent from the emergency room with oxygen to quarantine and recover at his home, on the grounds of St. James, according to a statement from the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
Valdez found Rodillas dead on Jan. 8 at his home while checking on him, and Father Ken Vialpando, vicar for clergy for the diocese, said medical examiners are investigating the man’s death to pinpoint the cause.
Meanwhile, St. James is temporarily closed so the building can be thoroughly cleaned, with a tentative reopening in time for Mass on Saturday, according to Vialpando. And Catholic officials are searching for a priest to temporarily fill in as pastor for St. James, which has a membership of about 400 families, according to Valdez.
Rodillas grew up in the Philippines and originally served there as a missionary priest. Valdez recalls stories he would tell of traveling through the jungles of the archipelagic nation to reach the faithful. Vialpando said Rodillas spoke several languages, which enhanced his ability to reach out to a broad cross-section of people.
“He was a missionary priest in many aspects of the word,” Vialpando said.
In 2007, Rodillas came to Utah, serving churches in West Valley City, St. George and Midvale before moving on to Bountiful and then Ogden, according to the Catholic Diocese statement.
Aside from his garden, chickens and goats, Valdez remembered Rodillas’ dedication to family members still in the Philippines and the funds he would regularly send them. Like Karrick, he also recalled his singing — Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby tunes as well as more religious music. “He was very musically inclined. He loved to sing,” Valdez said.
Rodillas’ faith and devotion to the church, though, stood out the most. He was brimming with “faith, hope and charity,” Valdez said, and preached a message of love that he lived by.
“He walked the talk,” Valdez said.
A funeral ceremony is tentatively being planned for next week at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. Valdez said a memorial of some sort will also probably be held at St. James.