Podcast highlights the work of Catholic health during the AIDS epidemic

February 15, 2020

By MARY DELACH LEONARD

In an episode of the America Media podcast "Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church," reporter Michael O'Loughlin visits a small memorial park at the former site of St. Vincent's Hospital in New York's Greenwich Village.

w200215_AIDSEpidemic_a-1

O'Loughlin re-lates how the hospital, which closed in 2010, was on the front lines as the AIDS epidemic grew during the 1980s. The tiny park at St. Vincent's Triangle was dedicated in 2016, to honor more than 100,000 New Yorkers who died of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.

"The day we visited the park was like any other — people cutting through on their commutes, couples sitting on benches," O'Loughlin tells listeners, adding that he thinks it's possible that some people who use the park don't realize it's a memorial.

There are few visible remnants of St. Vincent's amid the former hospital buildings that have been converted to condos, he notes. And yet he is struck by the thought of AIDS patients who spent their last days at the hospital more than three decades ago.

"This is where some of them ate their last meals. Nurses, family, friends and partners fed patients ice chips. Gave them sponge baths. Sometimes sang their favorite songs. Prayed with them," he says. "There weren't that many institutions that were respectful or hospitable to sick gay men in the 1980s. And the fact that St. Vincent's became a place where the LGBT community felt they could safely receive care — that moved me."

Capturing personal histories
For O'Loughlin, 34, the podcast is a personal journey of discovery, as well as a history of a crisis that began several years before he was born.

"As someone who is gay and Catholic, I wanted to learn how people before me have managed this sometimes difficult identity," he says in the introduction. "No time in modern history has been more volatile for gay Catholics than the height of the AIDS epidemic."

w200215_AIDSEpidemic_a-2
O'Loughlin

O'Loughlin has written about LGBT issues as part of his job as national correspondent for America magazine, a Jesuit publication. He began researching the AIDS crisis after talking with a priest who worked in HIV and AIDS pastoral care during the 1980s.

"I wasn't really aware of the history of HIV and AIDS, when it came to the Catholic Church," O'Loughlin said in a recent interview. "So, I started digging through archives and found that there were a lot of priests and sisters and laypeople who had been doing groundbreaking pastoral care when it came to LGBT people back then. And I just started reaching out and asking them for their stories."

The podcast relates the experiences of gay Catholics who sought acceptance and hope in their church during the epidemic, despite its teachings on homosexuality. Several episodes focus on how Catholic health care providers like St. Vincent's responded to the crisis.

Many of the people O'Loughlin interviewed told him that no one had ever asked them about their experiences during the AIDS epidemic. These personal stories are in danger of being lost to time, he said.

"You know, people kind of moved on as the '90s ended, and I think they have all this trauma that they locked away," O'Loughlin said. "So, it was important to me to give people space to talk and tell their stories."

Into the breach
O'Loughlin weaves these interviews with his firsthand accounts to portray the complexities and tensions of the period.

In the episode on St. Vincent's, he talks to gay activists and hospital staffers who describe tensions over policies. St. Vincent's, which was founded by the Sisters of Charity in 1849, is remembered for opening the first AIDS ward on the East Coast. But it didn't become a haven for AIDS patients overnight, O'Loughlin said.

w200215_AIDSEpidemic_a-3
Sr. Mary Ellen Rombach, OSF, left, and Sr. Carol Baltosiewich, OSF, co-founded Bethany Place, an AIDS services organization that grew to serve a 12 county area in Southern Illinois. Baltosiewich, who later left her order, spent about six months in the 1980s in New York City ministering to AIDS patients to learn about HIV and AIDS care.
Courtesy Carol Baltosiewich

Sr. Karen Helfenstein, SC, then a hospital vice president, describes how the sisters responded to activists who took over the emergency room and covered crucifixes with condoms. Instead of pressing charges, the sisters met with protesters to find out what they should be doing differently.

The hospital held sensitivity training for employees and worked to create a more welcoming environment for gay patients and their caregivers. Because of the Catholic Church's ban on condoms, nurses and doctors couldn't pass them out, but they could explain how condoms prevented the spread of AIDS. And they could refer patients to places that did distribute them.

The sisters' willingness to listen and adapt was key, O'Loughlin said.

"I think it's easy to say that there was this clash between the gay community and St. Vincent's because of church teaching, especially on condoms and homosexuality," he said. "But church teaching is also the mission to serve the poor and those in need. And that's where St. Vincent's really shines because it held true to that part of church teaching. And it didn't retreat when there were challenges."

Acknowledging implicit prejudice
The podcast also looks at how Catholic health care organizations stepped up to help people in small communities where there were no AIDS resources. In some cases, health care providers like Carol Baltosiewich had to start by educating themselves.

Baltosiewich was a Hospital Sister of St. Francis when she began meeting AIDS patients at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Belleville, a small city in Southern Illinois. (She later left the order.) To learn how to care for AIDS patients, she volunteered to spend six months working at Catholic hospitals in New York. Afterward, she returned to St. Elizabeth's and opened a center to provide services for people with HIV and AIDS.

"You can't begin to talk about AIDS. You can't begin to minister to AIDS. You can't even deal with it until you face your own prejudices and biases," says Baltosiewich.

Although the podcast is about the past, O'Loughlin hopes it will remind Catholics of the church's ongoing mission to care for those in need. He sees that continuing today in advocacy for universal access to health care.

"I think the fact that Catholic hospitals and Catholic health care leaders are fighting for the poor to have access to health care is an inspiration," he said.

The six-part podcast began airing on Dec. 1, Worlds AIDS Day, which remembers the 700,000 people who have died of the disease in the United States. Worldwide, 32 million have died of AIDS.

"Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church" is available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Spotify.

 

 

Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.