The Catholic Nun Who Came to New York to Confront the AIDS Crisis
In the 1980s the Catholic Church was notorious for its prejudice when it came to HIV and AIDS. But figures like Sister Carol Baltosiewich from Illinois were determined to do good.
For Sister Carol Baltosiewich, a typical day in 1987 meant listening to a lot of stories about gay sex.
The Catholic sister from the small city of Belleville, Illinois, recently recalled one such day in which she was holed up in a hospital conference room fielding telephone calls from nervous New Yorkers.
One after another, their voices tinged with fear, they asked her which sex acts might put them at risk of acquiring HIV.
Sister Carol tried to put the callers at ease, but she grew frustrated, with both her lack of knowledge and her inability to console the callers.
So she left and walked back to the convent in Hell’s Kitchen where she was staying with a group of other Catholic sisters. What on earth she was doing in New York?, she wondered.
By that year, more than 40,000 Americans had died of AIDS and any meaningful medical advances were years away. New York City alone accounted for nearly 10,000 of those deaths and another 6,100 or so people were living with HIV and AIDS at the end of 1987.
The crisis affected many vulnerable groups, but especially gay men, so that a Catholic nun was on the front lines of the crisis perhaps raises an eyebrow. The Catholic Church's leaders during the height of the AIDS crisis preached judgment, not mercy (and against birth control), adding to a toxic environment of homophobia and ignorance.
Cardinal John O’Connor, the conservative archbishop of New York, stymied safer-sex initiatives proposed by public health professionals, motivated by the church’s ban on condoms. He also opposed non-discrimination measures that may have afforded some peace of mind to gay New Yorkers. The story of the AIDS crisis in America is inextricably linked to the Catholic Church.
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.
Back in Belleville, Baltosiewich worked as a home-care nurse. Her first encounter of caring for a person with AIDS was with a once-promising dancer who had moved to New York, where he performed with the Joffrey Ballet, before moving home to die.
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.
Baltosiewich's experience in New York moved her to work with the gay community in Belleville and open Bethany Place, originally a drop-in center and clinic for people with AIDS that is still open today.
Baltosiewich was eventually appointed to an Illinois state commission that studied the government response to the epidemic, moved on to caring for people fighting addiction, and eventually retired. Though she left her religious order, she still maintains a commitment to Franciscan spirituality.
As a religion reporter who is both gay and Catholic, I’ve spent more than a decade trying to piece together these two seemingly contradictory parts of my identity.
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.
There’s no way to mark the beginning of substantial, positive Catholic involvement with the HIV/AIDS crisis, but David Pais offers a theory.
Pais, a development officer with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, told me he remembers the exact day he learned about AIDS: July 4, 1981.
A friend who lived across the hall in their Greenwich Village apartment building had slid the now-famous clipping from The New York Times under his door, the headline, in bold capital letters, “RARE CANCER SEEN IN 41 HOMOSEXUALS.” Affixed was a sticky note, telling Pais that a mutual friend was one of the eight people to die from this “cancer.”
Then, over 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 started volunteering for the nascent organization that would become the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which he recalled, in early 1982, was still little more than a steel chair, a desk, and a single telephone line in the basement of a brownstone on West 22nd Street. The group’s most pressing goal was informing people about how to protect themselves and their loved ones, but it was having trouble finding a space in Greenwich Village large enough to host such a gathering.
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.”
Even if individual Catholics were involved early on in trying to help those with HIV and AIDS, the institutional church and its conservative politics and outright bigotry was targeted by activists.
The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, or ACT UP, held one of its most famous actions in December 1989, when they targeted O’Connor at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Some ACT-UP members gathered for what was supposed to be a silent “die in” during the homily, which they viewed as the least sacred part of the Mass.
Plans for “Stop the Church” changed when a protester stood on his pew, blew a whistle and repeatedly yelled, “Stop killing us!” Activists threw themselves into the center aisle. Protesters read statements. O’Connor, looking out into the chaos, put his face into his hands and the organist laid on the keys in a futile attempt to silence the crowd. Police moved in and more than 100 protesters were arrested. The next day, the media was largely sympathetic to the church.
But decades later, the yelling protester has no regrets.
“It was liberating,” Michael Petrelis told me, likening the experience to the Gospel story of Jesus, filled with righteous anger, overturning the tables of the money lenders in the temple. He acknowledged that the church administered some of the only hospitals for people dying from AIDS, but he said that wasn’t good enough. “For me, standing up in the church, blowing the whistle, the screaming was my reclaiming my spirituality from the hatred of the church.”
Sarah Schulman, a playwright and novelist who is writing a history of ACT UP, was also in the church. She said that based on the immediate media response, she initially feared the protest was a failure. “In the moment, I was horrified that all this had happened,” she said. “But it turned out that it was one of our best actions. It was covered all over the world.”
While O’Connor, who died in 2000, and other vocal church leaders inflamed the activists and made headlines, many more Catholic priests, nuns and laypeople were in the trenches, providing some of the physical, emotional, and spiritual care that was often denied by those who were tasked with providing it.
Take Sister Pascal Conforti, the chaplain of the AIDS ward at Saint Clare’s Hospital in the late 1980s. With nearly half of the Catholic hospital’s 220 beds reserved for patients with HIV/AIDS during the height of the crisis, Conforti was immersed in death and disease for hours on end.
We met at her convent of Ursuline Sisters in New Rochelle, New York, where Sister Pascal recalled her days at Saint Clare’s with a matter-of-fact attitude.
She took issue with the framing of my questions about controversy between activists and O’Connor, noting that the archdiocese was supportive of the work at Saint Clare’s and that O’Connor himself regularly stopped by, away from the glare of the media, to visit patients.
For her, the issue was clear: There were jobs to do, she said, and she did them.
She recalled sitting with a gay couple, one near death, and listening to their fears about physical separation. She drew from her own faith tradition to assure them that their love wouldn’t die when their bodies were no more. “There’s some way in which love continues,” she remembers telling them. “The spirit continues in mysterious ways.”
Another time, doctors asked her to meet with a patient whom they couldn’t get to agree to the placement of a chest catheter to help fight a fungal infection in his throat. Todd, who identified as male but had scrimped and saved for years to obtain breast implants, repeatedly delayed the minor procedure. Doctors said he was running out of time. So they enlisted the help of the sister.
Sister Pascal visited Todd and asked him what was going on. When she emerged, Baxter remembers, Sister Pascal told the medical team what she had learned.
“He was very concerned that the portacath would mar his beautiful, symmetrical breasts that he had spent so much time and money on,” Dr. Daniel Baxter recalled. Sister Pascal, he said, told Todd that he did indeed have beautiful breasts—and she promised him that they would go unscathed during the procedure. Todd allowed the doctors to forge ahead.
By many accounts, while St. Clare’s and St. Vincent’s were both administered by the Archdiocese of New York during much of the AIDS crisis, there was little meddling by church leaders when it came to medical care or to the patient’s own religious beliefs.
Baxter said Catholic iconography decorated St. Clare’s, but that condoms were also routinely handed out and that his own care for patients was never second-guessed by non-medical officials. Schulman recalled that sometimes security guards were hostile to gay men embracing in the waiting room, but she said the staff was respectful of the patients and their visitors.
While she didn’t want to get into the controversy between groups like ACT UP and the institutional church, Sister Pascal said she encountered some individual Catholics who expressed bigotry toward people with AIDS.
“Once in awhile, someone would say to me, ‘Hate the sin and love the sinner,’” she recalled. “And I’d say, ‘No that’s very arrogant of you to call anyone a sinner. You don’t know.’”
The number of deaths caused by AIDS in the United States peaked in 1995.
By then, US healthcare was undergoing major changes and both St. Clare’s and St. Vincent’s weren’t immune. In the early 2000s, New York’s Catholic hospitals eventually merged under the St. Vincent’s name, but it wasn’t enough.
Following recommendations from the State of New York, the former St. Clare’s Hospital closed in 2007. In 2010, St. Vincent’s also closed its doors, the last Catholic hospital in New York City. Luxury condos now stand on both sites.
“The AIDS crisis was an important part of St. Vincent’s legacy because it was such a visible manifestation of what Catholic health care is called to be,” said Thomas Rzeznik, an historian at Seton Hall University who is researching the hospital. “Their work in serving all—the poor, vulnerable—it was made visible during this time.”
Today, the Catholic Church still grapples with homophobia. Many LGBT people who work for Catholic institutions can be fired at will, and some church leaders blame the ongoing sex abuse crisis on gay priests.
Pope Francis, who seems conflicted about homosexuality—he meets with gay Catholics and answered "Who am I to judge?" when asked about gay priests—has upheld as recently as December the church's official, though often ignored, ban on gay priests.
Last year, the Catholic Churches of Buffalo announced it would terminate its foster care and adoption program because the churches claimed that New York state rules that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation conflict with Catholic teaching.
In the 1980s, there were certainly many Catholics, including political and church leaders, who turned a blind eye to those with AIDS in the early days. Whether it was bigotry or simply willful ignorance, they failed to show basic humanity in the face of crisis.
But many other Catholics, like Sister Pascal, did what they saw as necessary.
“Pascal was totally non-judgmental,” said Baxter, then a doctor at Saint Clare’s. “She was probably the most Christ-like figure at Saint Clare’s.”
But Sister Pascal, who is now retired, may quibble with the notion that she, or others like her, were Christ-like.
“This was not a bunch of martyrs,” she said. “We did what we did because that’s where we were at the moment.”
But, she said, she learned a life lesson during that work.
“All that counts,” she said, “is affection, kindness, and love.”