Father Ubald Rugirangoga, a well-known Catholic priest from Rwanda who frequently visits Jackson Hole, is recovering from COVID-19 in the intensive care unit at the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City. He was airlifted there Friday due to his declining condition after nine days at St. John’s Health in Jackson.
Close friends of Rugirangoga suspect he contracted the virus in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he was giving a healing service. He returned to Jackson on Oct. 10, began experiencing symptoms on Oct. 14, tested positive on Oct. 20 and was taken to the intensive care unit in Jackson on Oct. 22.
Due to declining health and lung damage, “we needed to take it to another level, as he was not improving,” said his friend, former county commissioner Paul Vogleheim. That meant airlifting Rugirangoga to lower elevation and a larger regional hospital in Salt Lake City on Oct. 30.
Following the high volume of calls for Rugirangoga, the University of Utah Hospital even had to give him an alias, but the wishes and prayers may have helped: He was taken off of a ventilator Sunday and is being monitored in the ICU. He is still on a respirator and receiving oxygen and will stay in the hospital at least a few more days.
“He’s been breathing on his own, and it’s like a miracle,” Vogelheim said. “He was going downhill so fast and not expected to make it.”
Vogelheim posted on Facebook that friends had gathered outside Rugirangoga’s window in Jackson and phoned him before the transfer to Salt Lake City. Father Ubald, as he is affectionately called, explained to them why he had the virus: “So I can begin to pray with empathy for all the others with COVID.”
The priest (who Vogelheim says has been likened to the “Billy Graham of Rwanda”) is known for his teachings of peace and forgiveness. Rugirangoga escaped the genocide of Tutsi people across Rwanda in 1994, though 80 of his family members and 45,000 of his congregation were killed. He preaches reconciliation in Africa and across the world.
Jackson is his “home away from home,” and he loves the mountains, Vogelheim said. He first came in 2008 and visits about twice a year, according to Jackson Hole resident Katsey Long, who manages his travel and flights to perform healing services at churches across the United States. Rugirangoga does many services at Our Lady of the Mountains but also visits the Baptist, Episcopal and Presbyterian churches.
Long also contracted the virus but had a less serious case and has been doing daily rosary prayers on Rugirangoga’s Facebook page while he recovers.
“He’s definitely been one of those people that cross all denominations,” Long said. “People who are even non-church-going love him and who he is and his message.”
Rugirangoga gave a talk on forgiveness and reconciliation at the 2013 TEDxJacksonHole, and in 2017 the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts premiered a documentary on his life called “Forgiveness: The Secret of Peace.” He is an honorary Rotarian in the Rotary Club of Jackson Hole for his life mission to promote forgiveness and peace throughout Europe and his home country of Rwanda.
With Vogelheim and other Rotary members, he created the Center for the Secret of Peace in Rwanda, where thousands of people from both the Hutu and Tutsi tribes gather to hear his message.
“He is such a hero and such a powerful, charismatic Christian minister,” Vogelheim said. “He’s become an international force for good.”
Vogelheim and Long, who has been getting calls from around the world sending wishes to Rugirangoga, know many will be glad to hear of his recovery.
“He just kind of has that warmth and love and outreach just to whomever he meets and wherever he is,” Long said. “I’ve never met anybody more pure of heart.”