The Catholic Hospital That Pioneered AIDS Care

St. Vincent's Hospital, New York City, 2006 (Wikimedia Commons)

One fall afternoon, I stood on a small island of green located in the crosshairs of three hectic New York City streets. It was rush hour, the sun beginning to set. Harried New Yorkers hurried through the park on their way from work to happy hour. A gay couple sat holding hands on a bench. A few children screamed and laughed, running away from their exhausted-looking parents. It is possible many of the people in the New York City AIDS Memorial Park at St. Vincent’s Triangle were unaware of its purpose, which is to memorialize two things: the more than 100,000 New Yorkers who have died from AIDS-related complications since the early 1980s, and the hospital where many of those people spent their final days.

[Listen to the new podcast from America Media, “Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church”]

I walked around the perimeter and spotted a series of dark gray, circular medallions, about the size of manhole covers, embedded in the faded red pavers that circle the park. The discs form a series of concentric circles. On one, the outermost circle, in all capital letters, is printed, “FORMER SITE OF SAINT VINCENT’S HOSPITAL 1849-2010.” The next ring reads, “THE SISTERS OF CHARITY FOUNDED THE HOSPITAL TO CARE FOR THE POOR AND DISADVANTAGED.” An image of a woman appears in the middle, identifiable by her distinctive bonnet as a member of the Sisters of Charity. I kept walking and came across the marker I had been looking for. The center circle contains the image of a ribbon. Around it is printed “INTERNATIONAL AIDS EPIDEMIC 1980s” and around that “IN 1984 SAINT VINCENT’S OPENED THE FIRST AND LARGEST AIDS WARD ON THE EAST COAST.”

A Historic Refuge

Saint Vincent’s Hospital served the poor and indigent for as long as it existed. In its earlier days, sisters took care of victims from a massive cholera epidemic. People who had been aboard the Titanic when it sank were taken here. Not far from the site of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the hospital treated victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But I was interested in learning more about what happened here in the 1980s, when this Catholic hospital became synonymous with care for people with AIDS, especially lower-income gay men and drug users who could not afford fancier hospitals. Today it is not so easy to see that an iconic hospital once stood in this area. Most of the buildings that were once part of the hospital campus have been converted into multi-million dollar condominiums. Still, there are some small visual reminders of what this place once was. A sign above a doorway reads “Nurses Entrance,” with a sculpture of a Sister of Charity. “St Vincent’s Hospital” is etched above the main entrance of another building.

‘They Were There’

As I walked around the campus with a couple of friends, carrying a microphone for recording interviews, a man with silver hair spotted us. He had something he wanted to say and walked over. Tom Bernarden introduced himself; he said he had lived in the neighborhood for decades. We told him we were interested in the history of the hospital. He told us about his admiration for the Sisters of Charity of New York and why Saint Vincent’s was so important to the L.G.B.T. community during the height of the H.I.V. and AIDS crisis.

“I lost all my friends, all right. You understand? I’m 24 when I move in here. I’m 70” today, he told us. When asked about the sisters, he paused for a moment. “They were there,” he said, recalling how many other people turned their backs to a community in need. “They were there.” Mr. Bernarden, a local tour guide who describes himself as the unofficial mayor of the park, had a few less complimentary things to say about the Catholic Church, mostly about money. But he also told complete strangers how much he admired the Catholic sisters who ran Saint Vincent’s, praising them for caring for the sick when everyone else vanished.

“I lost all my friends, all right. You understand?"

Mr. Bernarden and I spoke for awhile. The things he told me prompted some questions. How did this Catholic hospital, which had already been run by sisters for more than a century, become a haven for gay men during the AIDS crisis? Part of the answer is geography. Saint Vincent’s was located in an area where many gay men lived. But it goes beyond that. The iconic place of Saint Vincent’s in the story of the AIDS crisis is due to pushing from activists who knew the hospital could do better, a pioneering gay doctor hired to open the hospital’s AIDS clinic and a group of sisters who saw people and need and asked themselves, “What can we do to help?”

‘A Cry for Help’

Seeking answers, I headed up to the Bronx, where the College of Mount Saint Vincent has sat overlooking the Hudson River since 1847. The leadership team of the Sisters of Charity of New York has offices on campus, and I was there to meet Sister Karen Helfenstein. She had trained at Saint Vincent’s nursing school, rose through the ranks and eventually became a top hospital administrator. She served as the vice president for mission during the height of the H.I.V. and AIDS crisis. Sister Karen recalls that, early on, there was friction between the hospital and the gay community.

Sister Karen recalls that, early on, there was friction between the hospital and the gay community.

One September evening in 1989, a group of activists from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, a radical protest group better known as ACT UP, took over the waiting area in the hospital’s emergency room. Tensions had been rising in the gay community over the church’s prohibition against condoms. Doctors and public health officials had urged people at risk of acquiring H.I.V. to use condoms to lessen the risk. But Catholic hospitals in New York City were not allowed to distribute condoms because of the church’s prohibition on artificial birth control. It appeared, at first, that the protest in the E.R. was about this issue; one of the activists had placed condoms on a statue of the risen Christ. Some hospital staff wanted to press charges because of that disrespectful act. But Sister Karen and the other Sisters of Charity took a step back. “I really wasn’t angry. I knew those people were struggling,” she said. “I felt it was a cry for help.”

Saint Vincent’s was a Catholic hospital, so it provided medical care that was in line with church teaching. Part of that is to care for the poor, which included gay men and drug users with H.I.V. and AIDS. It also meant following church teaching on sexual ethics, which did not permit condoms. Doctors could not give them out, and they could not counsel safe sex to gay men. But Sister Karen said that she and other hospital administrators worked with the medical team to ensure that patients had all the information they needed to protect themselves from this still little-understood disease.

“We talked to the nurses and doctors who believed that their professional responsibilities included fully educating a patient about what they could do to protect themselves and their partners,” she said. Sister Karen said there was a relationship between the hospital, which provided information, and nearby pharmacies, which provided condoms.

Dr. Ramon Torres was the first director of the AIDS clinic at Saint Vincent’s. He oversaw dozens of doctors and nurses, and he helped build the reputation that Saint Vincent’s enjoyed as a premier site for AIDS health care. Gay himself, Dr. Torres helped his clinic become a place where L.G.B.T. people felt safe. He told me in a separate interview that if high-risk patients needed condoms, especially people who were homeless, he made sure they received them—even if that meant under the radar. This was not exactly a secret. In 1993 an article appearing in The New York Times said, “One worker who works in St. Vincent’s AIDS clinic said he has kept condoms hidden in an office to give out when necessary.”

This is all to say that the protest in the waiting room was not, at its heart, really about condoms. Sister Karen intuited that pretty quickly. She and some other hospital administrators asked themselves, “What are we doing that’s not enough for these people, and is it possible for us to find out what their further issue is?”

“We were hearing a lot of ugly stories coming out, of people’s lovers dying, or very sick, and then not letting in their lovers to see them."

One of the organizers of the protest was Gerri Wells, a member of ACT UP who had been raised Catholic and whose brother had died from AIDS. Today she lives in Pennsylvania, and we tried a few times to speak, but we were not successful. But in an interview with an ACT UP oral history project in 2007, Ms. Wells explained why Saint Vincent’s was targeted by protesters.

“We were hearing a lot of ugly stories coming out, of people’s lovers dying, or very sick, and then not letting in their lovers to see them. Security guards would be abusive towards gay people,” Ms. Wells said. The impetus of the protest seemed to be an episode over Labor Day weekend when several gay men were attacked at a drag festival. One of the victims was taken to Saint Vincent’s. He was dressed in drag and he said some of the hospital staff referred to him as a “prostitute.” Others called him a “faggot.” His partner wasn’t allowed to accompany him into the E.R. That seemed to be the final straw for Gerri.

Ms. Wells said that protest seemed to work. She talked about a series of meetings with some of the Sisters of Charity that resulted in L.G.B.T. patients feeling more respected when they entered the hospital. “We would meet with them every couple of weeks. And we worked on changing the rules at Saint Vincent’s Hospital,” she said. “We got what we wanted. You know, we worked hard on that.”

Informed by Faith

Many people I spoke to about the legacy of Saint Vincent’s said the hospital reflected on how to serve the gay community better—not in spite of being Catholic but because it was Catholic. That is, the sisters and other hospital administrators took seriously their mandate to serve those in need. Joan Blanchfield is a retired nurse who is now in her 80s. She recalled connecting her work to her faith with the help of a particular image of Jesus. People afflicted with AIDS often developed on their skin dark purple lesions, a couple of inches wide, associated with Kaposi sarcoma. Ms. Blanchfield, who trained as a nurse at Saint Vincent’s, recalls her patients trying in vain to cover the lesions with makeup. She said her heart broke when she heard of the discrimination they faced when the lesions appeared on their arms and faces. She told me a depiction of Jesus as someone suffering from AIDS by the Rev. William Hart McNichols [see cover image of this issue], an artist and H.I.V. and AIDS activist, challenged her.

"I could see him suffering as Christ suffered."

“It was very moving because I had a patient with Kaposi’s and I could see him suffering as Christ suffered,” Ms. Blanchfield told me.

Dr. Christopher Mills was a surgeon at Saint Vincent’s Hospital. He said that early on, when AIDS was less understood, it would not be uncommon to hear other straight doctors making light of H.I.V., invoking jokes about a topic that was popular even among stand-up comics. But as the crisis progressed, he said the medical staff became more sensitive to the gay community. Part of that culture shift, he said, was driven by a critical number of gay colleagues on staff who helped to lead the shift. And that meant the hospital staff was not immune to the crisis. Dr. Mills, who died in 2019 in the months following our interview, recalled having to place an intravenous line in one of his colleague’s arms after he became sick. His colleague warned Dr. Mills to be especially careful with blood, a coded way of acknowledging that he had H.I.V. Dr. Mills said that quick exchange still haunted him decades later, describing the feeling of hopelessness he felt as “simply overwhelming.” Later, in the hospital chapel, he gave a eulogy for his young colleague, an experience he described as “sad as it could possibly be.”

According to many people we interviewed, Saint Vincent’s struggled early on when it came to its response to the H.I.V. and AIDS epidemic. Homophobia was present among some of the staff, and the fear that permeated society in general about H.I.V. and AIDS made its way into the hospital as well. But rather than retreat, hospital staff members like Sister Karen and Dr. Torres, whose worlds and life experiences in many ways could not have been further apart, worked together to ensure that patients from the neighborhood could be served with dignity and respect. It was through this commitment that a Catholic institution became perhaps the most iconic hospital in the history of H.I.V. and AIDS care in the United States.

Changes in health care would eventually lead to the demise of Saint Vincent’s, which was shuttered in 2010, leaving the neighborhood without a full-service facility. A series of mergers with other hospitals, billions of dollars of debt and a report from state public health officials that said the Greenwich Village neighborhood did not need an acute-care facility spelled the end for Saint Vincent’s. As my colleague Kevin Clarke reported in America in 2010, Sister Jane Iannucelli, a board member at the time, described the closure like this: “I think this is a big end of a cycle, of an era for the Sisters of Charity.”

Back in the park, Mr. Bernarden mourned the closure of the hospital—nearly a decade later. But he said the legacy of Saint Vincent’s continues because of the sisters who asked how they could do better and provide the care that they knew their patients deserved. “The only people to stay behind and take care of the dying and the sick at that epidemic were the Sisters of Charity, following their Christian mission,” he said.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

The new cardinals will bring the total number of cardinal electors to 128, of whom 73 will have been appointed by Pope Francis.
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 25, 2020
Many are wondering after the lack of response by the Vatican to questions raised about what Pope Francis actually said about civil unions.
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 24, 2020
Saying that his parents "taught me the importance of faith and prayer from a young age," Trump went on to say that "Melania and I have gotten to visit some amazing churches and meet with great faith leaders from around the world."
Blessed Carlo Acutis, an Italian teenager who used his computer programming skills to spread devotion to the Eucharist, was beatified in Assisi, Italy, Oct. 10, 2020. (CNS photo/courtesy Sainthood Cause of Carlo Acutis)
Acutis’s beatification is a beacon to all those who live their lives, for better or for worse, increasingly online.
Mike SeayOctober 24, 2020