On World AIDS Day, The Story of a Gay Catholic Couple’s Ministry to the Disease’s Victims

Nick Orth, left, and Michael DeSalvo

As we commemorate World AIDS Day today, we remember those who have lost their lives and honor all who courageously and lovingly open their arms to the suffering. Since the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s, a gay couple in upstate New York have opened their home to people with the disease.

Nick Orth and Michael DeSalvo converted their home in Syracuse, NY into the Friends of Dorothy Catholic Worker House during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Since that time, their home and house of hospitality has provided a safe place for the most vulnerable of persons to encounter love and comfort. Their story is recounted in the America podcast, Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church.

The couple met while protesting war and nuclear weapons as part of the Catholic Worker movement, founded by Day and Peter Maurin to serve impoverished communities and advocate for peace and justice. In the early 1990s, Michael and Nick purchased their home in Syracuse to build their life together. Two years later, their home would become a place for people dying with AIDS.

Michael O’Loughlin, America’s national correspondent, who visited Nick and Michael’s home, writes that by the end of 1992:

“[N]early 200,000 Americans had died from AIDS, most of them gay men, and effective therapies were still a few years away. Shame and stigma surrounded the virus, and the need for housing and hospice care far exceeded available resources.”

O’Loughlin was drawn to Michael and Nick’s story because they responded to the AIDS crisis with great generosity that is rooted in their Catholic faith.

The first person who moved into the Friends of Dorothy Catholic Worker House was a man named David. Michael, who is a hairstylist, went to David’s house to give him a haircut, and the following happened, according to O’Loughlin:

“When Michael arrived, he encountered what was becoming an all too familiar scene, but one that held its power to shock the senses. David was wasting away, lying on the floor, unable to clean or feed himself. He told Michael that friends and volunteers would bring by food when they could; but the rest of the time, David was on his own. He could not cope.”

Michael asked David to come home with him so that he would not have to battle the virus alone, even though the couple had yet to finish unpacking from their move into the Syracuse house. For weeks, they cared for David. He soon passed away “but his final days were spent in dignity, surrounded by caring people, rather than being stuck at home alone.”

From this experience, Michael and Nick recognized the great need AIDS had brought about: providing a safe place for people with AIDS and treating them with care, love, and respect. With this, the Friends of Dorothy Catholic Worker House was founded.

Two facts inspired the name for the house of hospitality Michael and Nick opened. First, “for gay men of a certain age, asking if another man was a ‘friend of Dorothy’ was a coded way of finding out if he was gay, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy, Judy Garland’s most famous character.” Second, “the house name paid homage to Dorothy Day, who had inspired Michael and Nick to undertake this work in the first place.”

Day, who is renowned for her conversion to Catholicism and starting the Catholic Worker newspaper and Houses of Hospitality, was ambivalent about LGBTQ persons. She welcomed LGBTQ people into her movement but was committed to upholding church teaching about sexual relationships. According to O’Loughlin, Michael and Nick “have long experienced discrimination in the church. Few Catholics he knew were willing to help in the early days of their AIDS ministry, seemingly unwilling to be associated with an illness so colored by shame and stigma.”

Michael explained that “he and Nick are not looking for approval from the institutional church. They feel Dorothy Day lived out her faith in a similar way. And ultimately, it is their relationships with God that sustain their work.”

He continued by saying “his Catholic faith and belief in God were bigger than the prejudices he encountered from other believers and that they continue to sustain their work nearly three decades later.”

Michael and Nick are inspiring examples of what it truly means to practice the Catholic faith. They enter the margins, where few ever truly go, and serve the most vulnerable, the most in need. This is what it looks like to radically and authentically live in Jesus’ footsteps. Michael and Nick give us an excellent framework to follow suit. Michael says, “If we’re expressing love and we’re expressing kindness, that’s what it’s about.”

Michael O’Loughlin has published a new book on AIDS and the Catholic Church, titled Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Mercy in the Face of Fear. Recently, Pope Francis used the occasion of receiving a copy of this book to praise Catholics who ministered during the AIDS crisis. If you would like to learn more about O’Loughlin’s book, click here.

Elise Dubravec, New Ways Ministry, December 1, 2021

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