One monk’s response to the AIDS epidemic
Beauty is not the first word that comes to mind when most people think of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. For those of us who can remember the early days of the outbreak, AIDS was a full-blown pandemic, widely misunderstood, rife with fear not only for the victims but for the medical professionals who cared for them. I remember the days all too well, as a priest friend of mine died from AIDS at age 46, having disclosed his true illness to no one. Conflicting accounts of whether the dreaded disease could be spread by saliva, casual contact or water fountains abounded. There were Christians who spread the hateful message that the epidemic represented God’s vengeance upon homosexuality. In short, few were thinking clearly in what the poet Thom Gunn described as a “Time of Plague.”
And then there was Vincent de Paul Crosby, O.S.B., a monk in love with beauty. Not the facile, belles-lettristic “beauty” of John Keats (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/ Ye know on earth and all ye need to know”) but a useful beauty, a beauty of utility. As an artist, he saw the potential and purpose of beauty in all things—whether he was designing altar linens, leading the renovation of his archabbey’s basilica or founding an AIDS residence for homeless men. His is the type of beauty found in The Rule of Saint Benedict.
Part of the brilliance of The Rule of Saint Benedict is its elasticity, its mutability. This may account, too, for its longevity and many different interpretations. This remarkable document, which gives the abbot in particular and his fold in general wide discretion about how the Rule should be implemented, is open to judgment calls. Granted, this has also given rise to entirely “new” orders such as the Camaldolese, the Cistercians and the Trappists (who prefer a more literal reading and interpretation of the Rule). But the fact remains that the Benedictine community has, if not flourished, at least survived these many centuries by adhering to the founder’s seminal writing.
And it is worth remembering that when St. Benedict was founding his first monasteries—and nunneries—he was still a layman. Indeed, the laity were encouraged to visit and stay at length in Benedictine foundations. Benedict himself encouraged “oblates”: laypeople who would participate in the abbey to the degree that their station in life allowed them. Indeed, Benedictine oblates are still a huge and continuing influence on almost all abbeys that follow the Rule.
A Place to Call Home
Flash forward from the sixth century in central Italy to Buffalo, N.Y., in 1986. A young Benedictine monk, Father Vincent, was given permission by his archabbot at St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa., to take the newly created position of director of pastoral liturgy at Christ the King Diocesan Seminary in East Aurora. While living in Buffalo, Father Vincent was asked by a friend if he would be willing to meet with a young man who had AIDS. His name was Jim. Jim, because he had AIDS, had been refused the sacraments by his own parish priest—and Father Vincent filled not only the sacramental but human needs of Jim during this difficult time.
After caring for Jim and several other men, Father Vincent realized he was needed more in AIDS ministry than at the seminary. His archabbot gave him permission to continue his work with the sick in the Buffalo area—on the condition that he was able to support himself and his ministry. “I did not see that as a problem,” Father Vincent told me, “because I knew I could live off the proceeds from my studio work.”
That “studio work” was Father Vincent’s custom-made vestments and altar linens. For decades, Father Vincent has been regarded as one of the foremost designers of liturgical vestments in the United States. Indeed, he designed the altar linens for Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia in 2015 and St. John Paul II’s vestment for World Youth Day in Toronto in 2001. For the 150th anniversary of the University of Notre Dame, Father Vincent was commissioned to create a chasuble for the university’s president, Edward Malloy, C.S.C.
Father Vincent runs Archabbey Studios on the grounds of St. Vincent Archabbey, where he designs and makes his singular vestments by hand. (I lived for a brief time as a Norbertine affiliate at St. Norbert Canonry in De Pere, Wis. When some of the canons there learned that I personally knew Father Vincent, who is a friend of my family in Niagara Falls, N.Y., it was almost the equivalent of knowing Gianni Versace or Gianfranco Ferre.)
While Father Vincent had the resources to support his ministry, he needed to know what, exactly, he could do to help those stricken with H.I.V./AIDS. He contacted the Western New York AIDS Task Force and was told that they were unable to address the housing needs of patients who became homeless. He figured his years of living in community could serve him well in this project; the problem was getting it started.
After discussions with the Diocese of Buffalo and the archabbot of St. Vincent, it became clear that at this point, neither body felt it could become involved in the venture. So Father Vincent turned to the wider Christian community and found support from a number of churches. And while the institutional church kept its distance, individual parishes, pastors and countless Catholic laypeople came forward to help.
Finally, with help of the Sisters of Mercy and other concerned individuals—Buffalo’s moniker is not for nothing the City of Good Neighbors—and not without adventure and skull-clenching headaches from the bureaucracy involved, Benedict House: A Ministry of Healing Hospitality opened its doors at 419 Summer Street in downtown Buffalo in August 1987. It was not officially or merely a “hospice”—a place to die or a skilled nursing facility. Rather, it served as the official residence of these homeless people. With their own address, they could qualify to have hospice and skilled nursing brought into their home.
The Art of Community
Father Vincent made sure that Benedict House was a home filled with beauty, inside and out. Indeed, the whole house was modeled on The Rule of St. Benedict, a sort of independent, transitional to long-term housing for people with AIDS, with the option of hospice services.
The key word here is long-term. No group, not even Larry Kramer’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City, the world’s first AIDS service organization, had at that point come up with a truly workable solution for the problem of where men with AIDS could live for a long period of time. Because Father Vincent had based Benedict House on the Rule, it was a place of ora et labora: work and prayer, or, as its mission statement read: “Those who reside at Benedict House benefit from a staff of ‘good listeners.’ Great care is taken to provide a wholesome environment within the House, so that each resident will eat well, sleep well, recreate well, and, if they are inclined, pray well.”
For Father Vincent, “wholesome” included elements of beauty, from the décor to the paint job. An interior decorator selected fine art to display in common areas, and one resident painted a large mural for the entrance hall. They introduced art therapy, encouraging residents to express their talents in visual arts and music.
And in a codicil that could have come right from St. Benedict’s own pen: “While much value is invested in a common life, the privacy of the individual is respected. The option to ‘get away’ behind one’s own closed door is available for each resident who requires quiet time, meditation and/or privacy.”
A Common Effort
From time immemorial, monks have been artists who have created stunning and timeless works of beauty. One need only view The Book of Kells to see that monastic communities produced not art-for-art’s-sake but a utile art: the illumination of manuscripts, the sculpting of sacred statuary and, in the Eastern tradition, the writing of icons. Father Vincent, then, was following in a proud and long tradition of artist-monks when he began designing his unique vestments and altar linens.
And with this new undertaking, Father Vincent’s creations became useful even beyond their liturgical function. In the early stages, Benedict House had no official backing from the diocese or the archabbey. Without the proceeds from his artwork, Father Vincent would not have been able to support himself, much less buy the first house for his ministry.
In retrospect, it was of course not ideal that the institutional church had to “play it safe” regarding the beginnings of Benedict House. But this also provided an opportunity for the spirit to become active at the grassroots level; the tireless ministry of faithful individuals gave an example to the institutional church, which would later spring into action on a greater scale.
And, to be fair, at first Buffalo’s elected officials were not eager to assist in tackling the sudden and growing problem of homeless men with H.I.V./AIDS. There were various attempts to “rezone” around Benedict House and thus rid a neighborhood of what was simply seen as an “AIDS hospice.” The city redesignated Benedict House as a “health care institution” so that it could not exist in a residential neighborhood and in 1993 provided only $45 a month per individual from the Department of Social Services. (Later, as the city came to better understand the import of Benedict House, more support was forthcoming.)
And yet Benedict House grew and even expanded. “We were able to do this—to grow Benedict House—because we held everything in common; we pooled our rather meager resources,” Father Vincent explained. This, of course, is one of the very tenets of The Rule of St. Benedict: All is held in common, from pens to napkins. There is a certain beauty in sharing.
However much good Father Vincent had done in founding Benedict House, he was still a Benedictine monk and, ultimately, monks live in monasteries (or in Father Vincent’s case, an archabbey). In 1990 he decided to return to St. Vincent, though he continued to support Benedict House as a member of the board of directors. Looking back on his decision, he said: “I realized that as an artist, I could envision something new, and inspire others to work with me to bring it into being. But I was exhausted from the constant round of public speaking, the number of residents I got to know and love—and then had to bury. It was time for me to go home—and even though I’m from Buffalo, my home is my archabbey.”
The Hard Work of Beauty
Last year, Benedict House closed in Buffalo, becoming a victim of its own success. Father Vincent said he would occasionally tell the board members that if they were ever asked how Benedict House was doing, they should just respond, “We are grateful we can continue to be a service to those in need. We will only be a ‘success’ when our services are no longer needed.” In 2015 federal funding of congregate, community living was slashed in favor of supporting long-term independent living. Benedict House was founded to care for poor, terminally ill patients; today most people are living with AIDS rather than dying from it.
When the house formally closed in July 2015, the board gathered for the last time to share memories and toast the good work done by so many for nearly 30 years. This was not so much a somber affair as a celebration of the wonderful work done by that singular home for the sick. While Father Vincent was certainly sad to see it end, he remained not only philosophical but more than a bit wise about what had been accomplished there: “The sick and the poor do not only need beds and bread—the poor need beauty, too. This is a big part of my vocation, and I try to live it out as both priest and artist. Artists are by nature a bit prophetic. They can see what can be, or what should be done—and work hard to bring it to reality.”
St. Benedict could not have foreseen the house in Buffalo that centuries later and continents away would bear his name. But his vision of communal life continues to bear fruit not just in monasteries but in all places where, through work and prayer, individuals come together to build up the body of Christ. And therein lies the beauty of the Rule.