Brother John Sebastian Laird-Hammond, 59, a Franciscan of the Holy Land in America, died March 20 of the coronavirus, according to Franciscan Father Larry Dunham, guardian and commissary of the same order. He was the first person in Washington, D.C. known to have died of the virus.

“Being a Franciscan is about taking care of the little people, and Brother Sebastian did exactly that,” Father Dunham said. “I have seen the Franciscan charism really being lived (in him).”

Washington officials reported on Friday that the first coronavirus death in the District was a 59-year-old male with an underlying medical condition. He was admitted to the hospital with a fever and cough for one week before dying on March 20. Father Dunham confirmed that this was Brother Sebastian.

Brother Sebastian was born in Minonk, Illinois, where he first was introduced to the Franciscans at his local parish, “where he got the call to be a Franciscan,” Father Dunham said.

After coming to the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C., in 1984 for training and formation as a candidate, Brother Sebastian made his solemn vows in 1989 and was ordained a permanent deacon in 1991.

Father Dunham said Brother Sebastian was diagnosed with leukemia in the 1990s. Throughout the past two decades, Father Dunham said Brother Sebastian underwent numerous treatments as a result of his leukemia.

“But Brother Sebastian never focused on himself, he never complained,” Father Dunham said.

Brother Sebastian was the business manager of the Franciscan Monastery in Washington for nearly 15 years, where he ran the daily operations of the monastery and the commissariat offices, which included the annual Good Friday collection which benefited the work of the Franciscans in the Holy Land.

“It was a huge task that he handled so well,” Father Dunham said.

Brother Sebastian, at left, is shown at a 2017 Blessing of the Animals at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land, held annually near the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the Franciscans' patron saint. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Father Dunham said he will remember Brother Sebastian as someone who was such a “champion of little people.”

“He had such an incredible network, and he would use that for individuals who were particularly downtrodden, or who fell between the cracks,” Father Dunham said, adding that Brother Sebastian would help undocumented immigrants find pro bono lawyers, find those in need a place to stay, or help those who needed medical treatment they could not afford.

In one instance, Father Dunham remembers how Brother Sebastian connected a young contractor, who was renovating the refectory and who was in great need of significant dental work, with a dentist whom, over the course of over a year, was able to give this young man a new smile.

“When we all saw him (the young contractor) smile, it was really hard not to shed a tear,” Father Dunham said. “He was so pleased. That would be the kind of thing Brother Sebastian would do.”

Within the past year, Brother Sebastian had received a new assignment with the Franciscan Friars’ Province of the Immaculate Conception in New York, where he would work to raise funds for that province’s missions in Central America.

Before moving to New York, Brother Sebastian received permission to spend time taking care of his health. This past winter, he went to the Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center in Jacksonville, Florida for treatment and, upon returning, Father Dunham said that many believed Brother Sebastian “came back in the best shape ever and was really just sailing high, beginning to seriously plan and be excited about his new assignment.”

An autopsy report will be made, Father Dunham said. “If somehow his death can help overcome this pandemic, and lead doctors to understand it better, (Brother Sebastian) would be so delighted to see that,” he said. 

A private funeral will be held in Minonk and the brothers of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America will hold a memorial service when the pandemic has passed.