Jackson - St. James

The Rev. Leon Franklin

The 60-year-old pastor of a Baptist Church in St. James Parish, described as a “big teddy bear” with a passion for Jesus, died this week from the respiratory illness tied to the novel coronavirus, his wife said Friday.

The Rev. Leon Franklin, pastor of St. Luke Baptist Church in the St. James community, was the first person in the Baton Rouge region to die in the global pandemic.

Statewide, the virus that causes COVID-19 had been confirmed in 537 people as of Friday evening, and had killed 14. In East Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes, the virus had been confirmed in 18 people, including Franklin.

Brenda Franklin, 61, said her husband, the pastor of the small Mississippi River church for 14 years and a native of the area, was an outgoing person and "big teddy bear" who "loved God and loved people in general" and young children in particular.

"He was everybody's pawpaw," she said.

The church's Facebook page, which is replete with videos of him and the choir engaged in song, spirit and sermon, complete with guitar and drum kit in the background, noted Franklin's passing and had nearly 200 messages of condolence early Friday.

"We will understand it better by and by. Our Pastor Rev. Leon Franklin transitioned on yesterday, went home to be with his God," a memorial Facebook post with his picture says. It was posted Thursday; Franklin had died Wednesday.

Brenda Franklin said she and two others in her extended family are quarantined for the next 14 days. She said her husband, who also worked at the Monsanto chemical plant in Luling, did not lead church service Sunday.

His loss caught the west bank St. James Parish area off-guard.

"It shocked the community," Franklin said.

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Brenda Franklin said her husband didn't feel well early last week and noted he had had an earache. She said he went to the doctor around March 9 or 10 but was sent home with an antibiotic medication and other medicine — which his insurance didn't cover — but wasn't tested for coronavirus.

She said he felt too poorly to lead this church's service on Sunday. At her urging, he went to St. James Parish Hospital on Monday with trouble breathing and was quickly put on oxygen, given chest X-rays and tested for coronavirus.

A burly, barrel-chested man, as shown in recent photos and videos, Leon Franklin didn't suffer from any chronic health conditions, his wife said.

Leon Franklin died at a hospital in Lutcher. His case hadn't previously been announced before parish government and hospital officials disclosed late Wednesday night that he had died.

Thursday, parish and hospital officials in St. James Parish defended their actions, saying they didn't find out about the resident's positive test result until Wednesday night and it was reported immediately to the public.

St. James Parish President Pete Dufresne said state health officials were expected to contact the family, guide them through the self-quarantine process and work with them to identify who might have been exposed.

Brenda Franklin said she has tested negative for coronavirus and feels fine physically.

But, with her quarantine, Franklin said, she is trapped at home — to mourn alone — and could only recently on Friday start using her husband's cellphone after she had disinfected it and let it sit a required period.

She also hasn’t been able to finalize funeral arrangements for her husband and has cautioned their two adult children who live out of state to stay away for the time being because they’ll have nowhere to go if they return to their North Vacherie home.

“And I have a twin sister. This is hard. This is hard for me. This is a pill to swallow, and I had a husband one out of a million, you know what I’m saying,” Franklin said. “I mean I’ve got to get adjusted to being a widow. I have to get adjusted to mourning myself with my kids not even here.”

Franklin said the past two weeks and her time trapped in her home has left her a bit disoriented about what day it is.

She said she needs a calendar and asked if someone could drop one on her front porch.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.