Remembering sisters’ loving response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic
In her book “Gold in Your Memories,” Macrina Wiederkehr writes, “Today many people are finding ways to remember. They are integrating into their lives lost and forgotten memories.” It’s my hope that as World AIDS Day approaches tomorrow, we as a Providence Community will remember the “lost and forgotten memories” of the Sisters of Providence response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Sister Marilyn Therese
In 1988, Sister Marilyn Therese Lipps was on sabbatical at the Galilee Community in Ontario, Canada. As she was discerning a new ministry, a newspaper article on The Damien Center in Indianapolis caught her eye. The Damien Center was founded the previous year as a response to the local AIDS crisis. After reading the article Sister Marilyn Therese felt the gentle tug of Providence. She said, “It struck me as something I would be very interested in. I was attracted to the fact that it was a place for people who are alienated.”
In June 1988, Sister Marilyn Therese became a volunteer at The Damien Center managing the switchboard. Providence called her to go deeper, so that July she went through training to become a “buddy” to a person with AIDS. A buddy was a person who helped a client navigate the various aspects of their diagnosis as well providing much needed emotional support. The first client to whom Sister Marilyn Therese was assigned to as a buddy was also the Center’s first child with AIDS.
In October 1988, Sister Marilyn Therese was hired by The Damien Center as the Coordinator of Services. One of her favorite parts of this ministry, which she called a “privilege,” was to visit clients in the hospital. In 1988, she made an average of 5 visits per week. By February 1990, she was making an average of 21 visits per week. When Sister Marilyn Therese was asked, “How do you do it?” she replied, “The answer is that I am enriched by these people. They never complain. They tell me what is going on with their bodies, but they do not complain.”
At this time, most of those to whom Sister Marilyn Therese ministered were gay men. Of them she said, “This is an orientation; it is their life. There is definitely no judgment by me. I have felt many times that the gay lifestyle has been criticized, even overly criticized. My philosophy is, ‘Hey, we’re all creatures of God, here for a purpose, and God’s love is for all of us.’”
Sister Marilyn Therese also served as the staff liaison to the Indianapolis Youth Group (IYG) which is an LGBT organization. Upon her death on Sept. 6, 2016, a man named Michael S. posted a tribute on the SP Facebook that said: “…She tethered me to earth when I wanted to escape the pain of coming out. She gave me the strength and led me to the Indianapolis Youth Group to find community.” He ended his tribute with the words “Te amo, my nun.”
Sister Marilyn Therese herself said, “I feel very close to the clients. They’re friends. They have reached out to me and I have reached out to them. It has its mixture of joys and sorrows. They know I care, and that’s the important part.” She loved them, and they loved her.
Sister Ann Michele
With the encouragement of Sister Marilyn Therese and Sister Carolyn Bouchard, Sister Ann Michele Kiefer applied for a position at The Damien Center upon the retirement of Sister Marilyn Therese. As Providence would have it, she was hired and spent seven years ministering to the men, women and children living with AIDS and those who were dying from AIDS.
She mobilized the Congregation into action by instituting an SP Prayer Partner program. Individual sisters at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods received the first name of a person with AIDS. “The Prayer Partner Program just grew,’ Sister Ann Michele said. “ When I visit the Woods, the sisters ask about what I am doing. I thought to myself that here, with the older sisters, was a vast untapped resource. The sisters are interested and their prayers are powerful. Not every sister can minister directly with persons with AIDS, but all can be involved through prayer.” She said the sisters tell her “For the first time this (AIDS) is a person to me.”
Sister Ann Michele regularly visited clients at the hospital saying, “If I get a call in the middle of the day saying so and so is in the hospital, come now, I go now,” she said. “Whatever comes up I do. I have learned to trust the feelings of God’s Providence.”
Sister Carolyn Bouchard, Sister Ann Michele’s longtime housemate, relayed a story of a project that Sister Ann Michele took up in 1993. As a way to process her own grief, she decided to cross stitch a banner with the names of every Damien client that died that year. Each evening when she came home, Sister Ann Michele would sit and cross stitch that day’s names.
Another project that Sister Ann Michele worked on was an annual retreat sponsored by the AIDS Task Force of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Father Tim LaBo of the Diocese of Orlando worked alongside Sister Ann Michele at the retreat. When I asked him what he remembered of his time with her he wrote, “She was a delight to work with. I remember her compassion and care with serving people with HIV and AIDS. She certainly was open to God’s Spirit in her life and modeled the love of Jesus. I was so blessed to work with her and all of the people who were together for the retreat we shared.”
Loving people as they were
This was echoed by John Alshire who worked with Sister Ann Michele at Damien. He wrote, “We became great friends. She never missed a beat. Guys in leather, guys in drag, guys with their partner — it never mattered to Ann. She loved people as they were. Sister Ann and Sister Carolyn would come to my house for movie parties, patio gatherings, etc. I simply adored her. In every way Sister Ann was a mother, a pastor and a person with a big heart. And she had the same infectious ability to laugh just as Sister Marilyn Therese did. I have been blessed beyond words knowing her and calling her my friend.”
Sister Ann Michele remained at The Damien Center until her first encounter with breast cancer. Upon her death in 2008, Sister Carolyn shared, “Watching her these past months as she lay dying, I realized that she learned from her Damien Center clients how to live and die from incurable disease without complaint, with dignity and grace.”
Visit the blog again tomorrow for a second part to today’s blog post on Sisters of Providence involved in responding to the AIDS epidemic.