A Catholic parish in New York City that contains the one of the first public memorials to HIV/AIDS victims is being closed, and there are questions about what will happen to the church building which contains this memorial as well as other historic artifacts.
Michael O’Loughlin of America reported on St. Veronica’s Church in Greenwich Village, which is scheduled to close this year. The church was, in O’Loughlin’s words, an “unlikely focal point” for gay men and their loved ones in the 1980s. The relationship between the gay community and the Catholic Church at the time was almost non-existent. He continued:
“But three decades later, with the AIDS crisis under control and changes in attitudes toward religious practice, about 200 people gathered inside that building on July 23 to bid farewell to the Church of Saint Veronica. Even as the church prepares to shutter for good, questions remain about what will happen to its many artifacts, including a humble AIDS memorial that historians say is one of the first public memorials to victims of the plague years in New York.”
Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, said St. Veronica’s location on Christopher Street positioned it at “the center of the L.G.B.T. community in New York,” and therefore it was “impacted quite heavily by the AIDS crisis.”
Berman described the parish’s evolving response to the crisis surrounding it. In 1985, Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s nuns, opened one of New York’s first AIDS hospice centers in the rectory. In 1990, Monsignor Kenneth Smith, pastor, connected with the local gay community to see what support he could offer. He shared with America that few clergy would accompany people dying from AIDS, but that did not stop his ministry:
“‘It was like to ministering to anyone else who’s dying from a disease. If you were a priest, you’d understand what I mean. . .They’d go to a hospital. I visited them in the hospital. I administered the sacraments. I’d be with them when they died. I would celebrate their funerals.'”
According to parishioner Terri Cook, St. Veronica’s efforts stood out because elsewhere the institutional church in the city “had shut out most of the AIDS victims.” She added that “[t]he cathedral was sealed to them.” Even at the Greenwich Village church, parishioners were not universally accepting of the Missionaries’ and Monsignor Smith’s ministries. Continuing to accompany people with HIV/AIDS against harsh critics was “extremely difficult,” Smith said.
The AIDS memorial opened in 1991, accompanied by an interfaith prayer service for people dying from AIDS that happened each year until 2015. O’Loughlin wrote:
“A few years later, in 1991, the church installed the memorial, a series of plaques with the names of men who died from the disease drilled into the choir loft. A small table with fresh flowers and a lone candle completed the memorial.
“For many, this out-of-the-way memorial, somewhat hidden up in a choir loft, was one of the few places where they could grieve the deaths of loved ones. Ms. Cook said she often witnessed individuals climbing the rickety wooden steps leading up to the memorial.
“‘It was the saddest thing you’ve ever seen. You just wanted to cry,’ she said, recalling the mothers, in particular, mourning the loss of their dead sons.”
Because it has protected status as an historic landmark, the church building will remain largely as it is but there is no clear vision about what happens to it besides preservation. Local Catholics “are appealing to the Vatican to keep St. Veronica’s open as a worship site,” and this would hopefully include retaining the AIDS memorial. If the church does close entirely, Joseph Zwilling of the Archdiocese said of the memorial’s items, “items of sacred, historical, or financial value are assessed and stored for possible future use in other churches.”
The parish is terrific model for what Pope Francis has called for the church to practice: encounter and accompany marginalized communities. Fr. Smith and parishioners observed the immense AIDS-related pain around them in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and then responded with compassion and without judgement to what was most needed.
The HIV/AIDS memorial has both historical and spiritual value that should be preserved. More widely, the people of St. Veronica’s witness remains instructive for our church today. This model is precisely how every parish and every Catholic institution should be responding to the needs of LGBT communities today. Whether or not St. Veronica’s closes, there is no reason Catholics elsewhere should not learn from the Gospel work that had been done there and enact it in their own communities.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 25, 2017