The secret history of Catholic caregivers and the AIDS epidemic

Nursing students treat a patient in the AIDS ward of Saint Vincent's Hospital in the 1980s. (Courtesy: Archives, Sisters of Charity of New York)

A mother of five needed help navigating multiple medical appointments, sorting her medications, arranging transportation and completing the many other day-to-day challenges that confronted people with H.I.V. and AIDS in the early years of the epidemic. Julie Driscoll, a Sister of Charity of Nazareth, remembers this particular woman, because even in the face of the fear and uncertainty that accompanied a diagnosis then, she learned a lesson about gratitude.

“Toward the end, when we would say, ‘Winnie, how are you?’ she would always say, ‘I’m blessed,’” Sister Driscoll recalled recently. “Can you imagine?”

Advertisement

For the past few years, I have researched how the Catholic Church, both the institution and individual believers, responded to the intense suffering of the most marginalized during the AIDS crisis in the United States. For those of us who are too young to remember, the scope of that suffering can be difficult to comprehend. According to the AIDS research group amfAR, more than 319,000 people in the United States died of complications related to H.I.V. and AIDS between 1981 and 1995.

Many of them felt abandoned by their friends and family and by the institutions that should have responded with both compassion and bold action.

More than a few Catholic priests, sisters and brothers, and laypeople confronted the stigma by responding pastorally to the H.I.V. and AIDS epidemic.

“People were desperate. Your friends were just dying every week,” recalled Andy Humm, a gay rights activist and journalist.

[Don’t miss more stories like this one. Sign up for our newsletter.]

More than a few Catholic priests, sisters and brothers, and laypeople confronted the stigma perpetuated by nearly every sector of society, including the church, by responding pastorally to the H.I.V. and AIDS epidemic in the early years. Sister Driscoll was among them.

From 1993 to 2003 she was the executive director of the House of Ruth, a social services center in Louisville, Ky., founded by a handful of other sisters and their friends in 1992.

In its earliest days, the House of Ruth was not so much a “house” as it was two rooms nestled inside a parish rectory. People managing H.I.V. and AIDS, mostly women and their children, stopped by the House of Ruth for assistance. Sometimes they needed help finding a doctor willing to treat them—this was a time when even some health care professionals would not touch patients with H.I.V. or AIDS—or needed just for few dollars for bus fare so they could run errands. They also sought assurances that they were not alone.

“People often asked me, what should I do if you know someone who has H.I.V.? Touch them please. Hug them if you can.”

“People often asked me, what should I do if you know someone who has H.I.V.?” Sister Driscoll recalled of her efforts at community education. Her response was: “Touch them please. Hug them if you can.”

Today, the House of Ruth is a multi-site housing and social services center that serves more than 600 people annually. (It is estimated that about 6,600 people in Kentucky live with H.I.V.) It is one of the largest resources of its kind in the state, which has experienced a surge of new H.I.V. diagnoses in recent years.

•••

Challenges remain in eradicating H.I.V. today, but a diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. Medications are available both to decrease the transmission of H.I.V. and to slow or eliminate the progression of H.I.V. to AIDS.

So why am I interviewing dozens of people about events 30 years ago, asking them to describe moments marked by sadness, fear and anxiety? It has been decades since many of them thought about those experiences. I have noticed that often when I wrap up these conversations, the person I am interviewing will say something like: “I hope that was useful. There’s just so much I don’t remember.”

And sometimes they will reach out a few weeks later.

They might have rummaged through their personal files or reached out to a friend or former colleague. They now have more to tell me. In follow-up conversations, they make the lives of their lost friends more vivid, recounting quirky personality traits or memorable dinners. They also articulate more clearly their sadness and remember their feelings of helplessness.

These encounters are always moving, but I seek them out for more important reasons than simply wanting to learn about the past.

First, many of these stories of ordinary people responding to suffering in extraordinary fashion have not yet been captured in forms that will last. Given that the first case of what would become known as AIDS was reported in 1981, nearly four decades ago, many of the people who were on the front lines then are now in old age. Time is not on our side.

Many stories of ordinary people responding to suffering in extraordinary fashion have not yet been captured in forms that will last.

Second, the institutional church’s relationship to L.G.B.T. people today is fraught. But there are historical examples of kindness between Catholics and L.G.B.T. people during the epidemic that can be helpful as we navigate major societal shifts.

Many people in my generation—I am in my 30s—have left the church because of the perceived hostility of some church leaders toward those with non-normative sexualities. People younger than me often look past the church entirely when trying to order their lives for similar reasons.

H.I.V. and AIDS affected more than the gay community. But I focus on the relationship between the gay community and the church at that time because it provides previously unknown stories of Catholics overcoming social bias. I am eager to listen, and I seek to help share their stories of quiet courage.

Take Michael Carnevale, O.F.M., a Franciscan friar who for many years ministered at the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, a large parish just across from Pennsylvania Station in New York City.

During a sabbatical in the early 1980s, Father Carnevale lived in San Francisco’s Bay Area. He befriended a man named Michael and his partner, Donald. Michael, an artist whose love for life manifested itself in the epic costume parties he hosted, became sick. He lived with H.I.V. for about three years. During this time, Father Carnevale spent weekends with his friends, helping out as Michael grew weaker.

There are historical examples of kindness between Catholics and L.G.B.T. people during the epidemic that can be helpful as we navigate major societal shifts.

On Halloween night 1983, Michael died. He was surrounded by about 30 friends, each in costume for one last party. Father Carnevale was among them. Moved by his friend’s suffering, Father Carnevale decided to do more. He volunteered as a chaplain at San Francisco General Hospital, visiting the mostly gay men who were spending their final days in a ward for people with H.I.V. and AIDS. He quickly came to understand that these men needed more than medical care. They needed to know people cared about them.

“At that time, the church was really not that involved,” Father Carnevale recalled in an interview in 2017. He knew there was a need, but he was not sure who could help. His mind turned to a group of “old Italian ladies” who met regularly at Mission Dolores Parish in San Francisco. He asked if he could address the group, and they agreed.

“I told them of the need that we had, that young men and young women [with H.I.V. and AIDS] were [alone] in their apartments and they really didn’t have anybody to take care of them,” he said.

He asked if some the women would consider volunteering.

“I didn’t know what kind of response I would get, but it was amazing,” he said. “They would go and they’d clean and they’d cook. Some of them would even take some of the guys and the girls to the doctor’s appointments because they didn’t have anybody.”

Embedded in these histories are lasting witnesses to the power of Jesus’ call to love one another.

Homemade meals, clean apartments and rides to appointments may seem insufficient at a time when the communities most affected by H.I.V. and AIDS required systemic change—in health care, government, religious institutions and nearly every other sector of society. The church is hardly without blame when it came to creating a culture of fear and judgment around H.I.V. and AIDS. But for those who felt abandoned and alone, those acts of kindness were more than gestures. They were lifelines to the outside world.

•••

It is impossible for anyone who was not alive at the time to feel viscerally the fear that permeated communities ravaged by H.I.V. and AIDS in the early days or to understand the abandonment and isolation many individuals experienced in their final days. But I have sat quietly with men who, decades later, tear up as they recount all the friends they lost in just a few years. I have looked in awe at Catholic sisters, now in their 70s and 80s, who wince at my suggestion that their work was extraordinary, if not heroic.

“This is not a bunch of martyrs in that period. It really isn’t” is how Pascal Conforti, an Ursuline sister, put it. Sister Conforti was the director of pastoral services at the former St. Clare’s Hospital in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Before it closed in 2007, St. Clare’s served a large number of patients with H.I.V. and AIDS. “We did what we did because that was where [we were] at the moment.”

Though most of the people I have interviewed resist praise, a thoughtful look at this time in history shows that each kind response to the H.I.V. and AIDS epidemic during the early years was, in fact, extraordinary.

Some people, Catholics included, made life more difficult for the vulnerable. The vast majority of Americans did nothing at all. But more than a few people provided a gentle touch, free of judgment and scorn. These are just a few stories. Many other people have shared their stories with me, and I am seeking to hear more, because embedded in these histories are lasting witnesses to the power of Jesus’ call to love one another.

If you have stories from the early days of the H.I.V. and AIDS epidemic that you would like to share, please email the author at oloughlin@americamedia.org. Anna Marchese, a former intern at America, contributed to the research in this essay. 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
C Gregory Jones
2 weeks 4 days ago

I lived through the ‘plague years’ in Chicago. During those years I witnessed the Catholic Church in Chicago respond with love. The Alexian Brothers built “Bonaventure House,” for people with AIDS who had no place to live. The Daughters of Charity converted an entire floor of St Joseph’s Hospital, probably the nicest floor, into private rooms designed for people with AIDS. Beautiful rooms, with lake views, furnished so that family could stay with their loved one. Some parishes and priests welcomed funerals without asking “did they belong to this parish?” I volunteered to mentor “buddies.” Some of these caregivers were religious brothers, some lay folks from Dignity and AGLO, and other Catholics. There was so much love amidst the pain. I am proud of the Catholic response in Chicago back in those dark days.

Johnny Nasheo
2 weeks 3 days ago

This article easily conflates two entirely different organizations with entirely different missions. The Catholic Healthcare missions are NOT the Catholic Church. FULL. STOP. They were tasked under Vatican II with fulfilling their missions in Christ and they do that, even sometimes at odds with the Catholic Church. They are largely staffed by lay people, many, if not most, of whom are not Catholic. They don't generally discriminate against the LGBT community, I know having worked in one for 8 years, and, in fact, could probably not operate without the LGBT community . Pope Benedict tried to take on the LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious) to make them more discriminatory against the LGBT community and they pushed back strongly. I had a daughter tell me point blank that if the Catholic Church ever tried to get them to go in a direction contrary to their mission, they would separate from the church entirely. The Church even excommunicated one Daughter in a sister hospital of ours for making a medically necessary decision they didn't care for. She's still a nun and she still works at the hospital. They also stripped the hospital of it's Catholic status (a somewhat meaningless gesture) yet it still operates true to it's mission as ever. Turns out, one can be catholic and follow the teachings of Christ and Catholicism without the permission of the Vatican. https://abcnews.go.com/Health/abortion-debate-hospital-stripped-catholic-status/story?id=12455295

Cathy Taggart
1 week 2 days ago

The Catholic hierarchy are not the Catholic Church either!

Advertisement

The latest from america

In the four years since Pope Francis released his encyclical “On Care of Our Common Home,” both global and local reporting on the effects of climate change has only gotten more dire.
Jim McDermottJune 18, 2019
Protesters gather on a main road near the Legislative Council on June 16 as they continuing protest against the unpopular extradition bill in Hong Kong. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Hong Kong has been rocked by mass protests against a proposal would allow suspects to be sent for trial in China’s Communist Party-controlled judiciary.
Verna YuJune 18, 2019
Four years later, various Catholic groups are answering the call from “Laudato Si’” as they try to help people close a gap between the spiritual life and ecological awareness.
Basilian Father Thomas Rosica speaks at a Vatican press briefing in 2015. (CNS/Paul Haring)
Rosica has faced allegations of plagiarizing the written work of several authors.