“The story of the AIDS crisis in America is inextricably linked to the Catholic Church,” wrote Michael O’Loughlin as he began to tell the story of Sr. Carol Baltosiewich, her HIV/AIDS ministry in the 1980s, and the stories of other U.S. Catholics at the time.
O’Loughlin, who is America’s national correspondent, shared these stories in The Daily Beast. Identifying himself as “a religion reporter who is both gay and Catholic” who “spent more than a decade trying to piece together these two seemingly contradictory parts of my identity,” O’Loughlin acknowledged the personal nature of this piece:
“When a priest friend told me a couple of years ago about his experience as a college chaplain in the 1980s, when his bishop chastised him for ministering to gay students who were fearful of the epidemic, my curiosity was piqued. (His bishop relented only when the young priest told him the AIDS crisis was a ‘pro-life’ issue: these students’ friends were dying all around them.)
“I sought out others who were on the front lines during the crisis, part of my effort to understand what happened when the gay community and the Catholic Church confronted one another so aggressively, yet somehow still collaborated at a time when fear and uncertainty permeated so many lives.”
The journalist identified an initial way the Catholic Church became involved as early as 1981. Activist David Pais, a Catholic, was involved with a group later known as Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which sought to inform people on protecting themselves from AIDS. O’Loughlin reported on Pais’ story:
“[O]ver the next several months, Pais watched his neighbor, previously a vibrant young thirtysomething, also become sick and eventually die. A committed Catholic, Pais vowed that he would do all he could to help others suffering from HIV/AIDS.
“Pais thought his church, Saint Joseph’s, had plenty of space. To his delight, the parish’s priests agreed and gave the group access to the Catholic school’s gym. But on the day of the event, the gym couldn’t contain the more than 500 people who showed up. So they moved inside the church for a candid conversation about AIDS and gay sex.
“‘I want it to be known that the first AIDS public education program that was ever held in Greenwich Village was held in a church,’ Pais told me. ‘And that’s the beginning of the church’s role in the AIDS epidemic as I know it.'”
Many Catholics joined the effort to try and stymie AIDS transmissions, support those living with the disease, and care for the dying. One minister was Sr. Carol Baltosiewich, who had cared for a person dying from AIDS in her hometown of Belleville, Illinois, moved to the epicenter of the AIDS crisis, New York City, to learn more:
“Stories such as Sister Carol’s showed individuals determinedly swimming against the tide: a small-town Catholic nun moving to the big city and throwing herself into gay life, forced to confront her own biases so that she could learn how to serve others. But it’s not unique.
“Carol knew she had to learn more about this new illness to help people like him, so the then-Hospital Sister of Saint Francis, along with another sister, moved to New York City for six months and signed up for stints at Saint Vincent’s and Saint Clare’s, two large Catholic hospitals that cared for many of those suffering from the disease.
“Following the advice of a gay couple she met through her hospital work, who told her she had to learn from the community she wished to serve, Baltosiewich visited gay bars, attended town hall meetings, and volunteered at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. She learned to be an ally, to join in the fight for justice.”
Back home in Belleville, the sister, who later left her order of Franciscans, became an AIDS activist. She opened a clinic for people living with AIDS that exists even today and served on a state commission studying the AIDS epidemic.
But relations between the Catholic Church, the gay community, and AIDS activists were tense, especially during Cardinal John O’Connor’s tenure in New York. His legacy perhaps exemplifies the tension which existed. One the one hand, he opposed the promotion of contraception which saves lives as well as non-discrimination protections for lesbian/gay people and people living with AIDS. This prompted protests from ACT UP, including a “die in” during a 1989 Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Yet Sr. Pascal Conforti, who served as AIDS chaplain at St. Clare’s Hospital in New York City during the 1980s, defended O’Connor’s record. The hospital run by the Archdiocese, along with St. Vincent’s Hospital, was key in serving the city’s HIV/AIDS community; half of St. Clare’s 220 beds were reserved for them. She said O’Connor regularly visited AIDS patients and let the hospitals minister to patients as needed, with little interference.
Conforti also resisted claims that these Catholics involved with AIDS ministries and advocacy were heroic in their actions; one doctor at St. Clare’s described her as “the most Christ-like figure” there. But in sentiments echoed by Catholic sisters worldwide, she responded:
“‘This was not a bunch of martyrs. . .We did what we did because that’s where we were at the moment. . .All that counts. . .is affection, kindness, and love.'”
O’Loughlin shared that people like Sr. Carol and other Catholics involved in AIDS ministry in those early years of the crisis helped his own faith. On the WNYC podcast Nancy [Editor’s Note: The interview includes some explicit sexual content], O’Loughlin said:
“I think what surprised me most about Carol was that she had lived through this really traumatic time but didn’t seem at all phased by it. It was kind of like this is just what you have to do when you confront this challenge. And I think a lot of people just wouldn’t have done anything. I mean, a lot of people did do nothing. For much of my life, I’ve been trying to understand, like, my dual identities as a Catholic and a gay man. And I think especially for gay Catholic people, sometimes there’s a sense that things won’t change, and maybe it’s not worth the risk. But with Carol, I think we saw someone do something that was meaningful and impacted a lot of people’s lives for the better. And she was courageous.”
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 29, 2019