How Catholic sisters created homes for people with AIDS

November 29, 2022 Michael J OLoughlin

 

The plans were meticulous, but then reality threw a curveball.

The Sisters of Providence, a Catholic order of women religious with a large presence in the northwestern part of the United States, hadn’t necessarily sought to provide housing for people with HIV and AIDS during the early days of the crisis. But like so many other sisters before them, when a group of these sisters learned of a pressing need in their community, they responded with compassion. And then they got to work.

Physicians and support staff at what was then Providence Hospital, Oakland, had been distraught each time they discharged a patient with disabilities who had nowhere suitable to go. Perhaps they could no longer navigate flights of stairs up to their apartments. Or maybe they had nowhere to call home at all, and instead slept in parks and dangerous shelters while trying to recover. Homelessness was a major crisis in the Eastbay in the 1980s, with as many as 9,000 people lacking adequate housing at any given time, and not nearly enough beds in shelters to accommodate them.[1]

Was there anything the sisters could do to help?

Having previously opened three facilities offering affordable housing to people living in Washington and Oregon, the Sisters of Providence said yes. After all, when the founder of their religious order, Emilie Gamelin, ministered in her native Montreal back in the 1840s, she and a small group of other women provided housing to orphans and widows. (Mother Emilie would go on to be beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2001.) Now, in the 1980s, providing access to safe housing for vulnerable people was no less urgent.

By the end of 1985, the Sisters of Providence had secured initial funding and created plans for a few dozen affordable apartments for low-income adults living with disabilities. After overcoming several obstacles—including a bureaucratic nightmare involving an historic but dilapidated structure situated on their property, popular with people using drugs, eventually destroyed by a fire—the sisters broke ground on September 30, 1987. According to a press release, once constructed, the house would “provide housing for low-income disabled and elderly persons.”

But two years later, construction was still elusive. A powerful earthquake in 1989 had damaged city offices, with piles of permits and paperwork a casualty of the tremors. The house would be delayed yet again.

Maybe this was a sign that the project just wasn’t meant to be?

“The people of Oakland need this housing project desperately,” thought Sister Barbara Schamber, SP, the provincial superior of the Sacred Heart Province, recognizing the federal money the sisters had secured would simply vanish if they gave up. “So we will proceed.”

But it would take more than an ironclad commitment to see the house through. That’s why Sister Barbara turned to Sister Mary.

Sister Mary Grondin, SP, had a passion for social justice. On Ash Wednesday, in 1983, Sister Mary and two others hopped a fence at the Trident nuclear submarine base in Washington State. They walked along the railroad tracks that brought the weapons to the base, stopping occasionally to pray and to place photos of people killed by nuclear weapons. Along with her two companions, Sister Mary was arrested for trespassing.[2]

A couple of years later, the Sisters of Providence built several units of affordable housing at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, which back then wasn’t the iconic and vibrant market it is today. Sister Anita Butler, SP, a member of the province’s leadership team, was tasked with finding a sister to help run the Seattle residences. She thought immediately of Sister Mary. Supportive housing was no easy job. People experiencing drug addiction and mental illness needed fierce advocates. Sister Anita knew Sister Mary was the perfect fit.

When asked about her philosophy of providing housing to people experiencing difficult challenges, the sorts of people society usually likes to keep hidden in the shadows, Sister Mary summed it up succinctly.

“Without basic housing and basic respect, it’s pretty hard to take care of the rest of your life,” Sister Mary said.[3] Put another way, Sister Mary saw in the housing ministry a fulfillment of the commandments to love one another laid out by Jesus in the Gospels.

“This is clearly a participation in the healing ministry of Jesus,” she said. “Even though this is obviously a building, it’s run on Christian principles and with a respect for peoples’ varying traditions. Walking with people who are disabled or ill, it’s a privilege.”[4]

Back in Oakland, the sisters were trying to get the new residences built, but they needed that extra push. That’s when Sister Barbara decided to ask Sister Mary to get on board. After all, as another sister put it, “Sister Mary was relentless, in the best sense of that word.”[5]

So in November 1989, Sister Mary arrived in Oakland to devote her efforts to a project that felt like it was on life-support.

She made it her mission to talk to as many people as possible. She met with hospital administrators. She tracked down local activists. She visited adults living with disabilities.

At this point, plans for the house still called for serving adults with disabilities. That’s what the hospital had asked for. And that’s what the sisters had pledged to deliver.

But “adults with disabilities” was such a broad, abstract category of people, Sister Mary realized. Who were the individuals the sisters would actually serve?

Two groups of people were especially underserved in the Bay Area: adults with mental illness and people living with AIDS. Officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Renewal told the sisters that the grant money they had received was designated only for physical disabilities, so housing for people with mental illness was off the table.

There weren’t many organizations rushing to care for people with HIV and AIDS in Oakland in the 1980s. But then again, there hadn’t been many organizations ministering to poor immigrants with cholera in mid-nineteenth century Montreal. But Mother Emilie Gamelin did. And a century and a half later, following her example, and listening to the pleas from local leaders, the Sisters of Providence took up that call to serve.

In my book Hidden Mercy, I present stories about Catholics in the United States responding to HIV and AIDS with mercy and compassion in the early days of the epidemic. At the institutional level, the response was not always inspiring. Some bishops undermined public health campaigns and others fought against measures that could have made life a bit less scary for members of the gay community.

But there are also other stories of Catholics, drawing inspiration from the teachings of Jesus, who responded with love and compassion, even if their stories weren’t covered by the press. Priests visiting gay men dying from AIDS, who had been abandoned by family and friends. Gay Catholics organizing buddy programs, to make sure their friends and neighbors had meals when they could no longer cook for themselves. And Catholic sisters, like the Sisters of Providence, who responded with creativity and compassion when confronted with the deep need present in their communities. As a gay Catholic myself, learning how others responded with mercy in the face of such stigma and shame has made me more confident in my own faith.

Throughout the United States, the need for affordable housing for people with AIDS in the 1980s was astronomical. Some fell behind on rent while hospitalized and faced eviction when they were discharged.[6] Others contracted HIV in homeless shelters, which saw disproportionately high rates of HIV. Still others were not welcome back home after their families learned that they had been diagnosed with HIV.

By 1990, experts estimated that tens of thousands of Americans living with HIV and AIDS lacked access to housing, with one member of the National Commission on AIDS describing that reality as “a national scandal.”[7]

That scandal plagued Oakland, home to just nine units of affordable housing for people with AIDS.[8]

Even for someone with her energy, Sister Mary encountered a formidable opponent in City Hall. Paperwork misfiled in city offices. Small tweaks to blueprints adding delay after delay at the construction site. Special permits were needed. Financing and banking hiccups.

But finally, on September 26, 1990, contractors were given the green light to begin construction. Providence House Oakland would take about another year before it was complete.

Recognizing the vast challenges that the residents would face, the sisters asked Sister Patricia Hauser, a social worker who had previously ministered to people experiencing homelessness in Seattle and Alaska, to assist Sister Mary at the house.[9] Sister Mary, with her nursing background, and Sister Pat’s social-work knowhow created a dream team in terms of holistic care for people living with AIDS.

Six years after the initial idea for what would become Providence House Oakland was first discussed, Sister Mary finally moved in, settling into her apartment on July 31, 1991. The next day, she welcomed 26 residents. The day after that, another 14. A small dent into Oakland’s need for affordable housing for people with AIDS, but for those 40 people, it was literally life changing.

Each resident rented a private apartment, with a bedroom, kitchen, and living room. But many of the residents lacked furniture, nevermind basics like towels and sheets. So Sister Mary haggled with mattress wholesalers and bargained for the best deals on linens. Sister Pat acquired dressers and nightstands from St. Vincent de Paul and placed announcements in the bulletins of local parishes for more donations. Soon enough, each of the new residents had enough to make their new apartment their home.

Across the country, HIV was wreaking havoc on communities of color, a reality dating back to the earliest years of the epidemic. In 1985, African Americans accounted for 25 percent of new AIDS diagnoses, even though they comprised just about 12 percent of the total U.S. population. By 1990, the number of new HIV infections among African Americans was higher than it was among whites, and by 1994, the death rate from HIV infection for young Black men was four times as high as white men.

The residents in the early days of the house reflected the reality of who was being hit hardest by HIV and AIDS in the early 1990s. Around Oakland, more than 50 percent of new AIDS diagnoses were among people of color.  Most of the residents at Providence House Oakland, about 70 percent, were African-American men, and nearly 75 percent of the residents were living with HIV.

And from the first days of Providence House and for many years to come, there would always be a list of people seeking to move in.

Tim Zaricznyj had never planned to work for Catholic sisters.

True, he had grown up in a Ukrainian Catholic family in upstate New York and graduated from a high school and then a college run by the Jesuits. As a young man, priests had even encouraged him to enter the seminary. He had admired his religion teachers who urged him to question his faith, to draw the best parts from it but not to take it all in blindly. But Tim’s worldview was ultimately shaped by other realities. As the son of refugees. The brother of a sibling with special needs. And, as he began to understand as he came of age, his experiences as a gay man.

In 1990, in his mid-20s, Tim moved to San Francisco. He had “absorbed” the homophobia expressed by some religious leaders, including those who suggested that AIDS was a punishment from God. Tim knew differently, through his work with HIV and AIDS organizations in the Bay Area. He had no choice, he felt, but to leave behind the faith of his childhood.

That’s why it was perhaps a bit of a surprise when, three years later, Tim found himself interviewing for a position at an affordable housing complex for people with AIDS—being questioned by two Catholic sisters. Tim had steeled himself for the interview, deciding that he would be honest with the sisters about his own journey, including his life as a gay man. He figured his resume gave it away. Most men working in HIV and AIDS back then, it seemed, were part of the gay community themselves. But he made sure there was no ambiguity.

“I need confidence from you,” he told the sisters, “that I can bring my whole self to work, that I won’t need to edit who I am.”

The sisters didn’t flinch. In fact, they told Tim that being able to relate to the residents in a way the two celibate women never could was a selling point. He got the job.

One of the sisters who interviewed Tim, Sister KC Young, OP, was not a Sister of Providence. But her ties to the order ran deep. She had been educated by the Sisters of Providence, and then entered the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa. While studying in Seattle to become a hospital chaplain, Sister KC lived with some members of Sisters of Providence, which is how she met Sister Mary.

The pair of sisters struck up a friendship. A couple of years later, when a position opened at Providence House, Sister Mary asked Sister KC if she would like to work there. She said yes.

One of the selling points for Sister KC was her paycheck. Not the size of it. It wouldn’t be much. The federal grants couldn’t be used for services, which Sister KC would be providing. So instead, the Sisters of Providence underwrote her salary. The sisters were insistent that the residents have more than a roof over their heads, but access to resources that could help them thrive, and they used their resources to back up those ideals.

“That said a lot about their vision,” Sister KC recalled, “about what was valuable and important in that ministry.”[10]

The staff and volunteers at Providence House spent their energy forming a community. Neighbors knowing neighbors. There were occasional social events, shared meals in the common spaces. When the sisters received a check for $3,000, an unexpected rebate for buying energy efficient refrigerators, they turned to the residents to ask how to spend it. The consensus: patio furniture and a new grill so everyone could socialize outside. The furniture arrived in several large boxes, and 10 residents spent an entire day assembling chairs and tables.

“It took all day, with many disputes as to what the directions really meant, and lots of laughter as pieces were taken apart and reassembled,” the sisters remembered.[11]

Activities like that brought the residents together.

“There’s comfortable housing, a family environment,” recalled Dan Parish, who found Providence House through a support group for people with HIV.[12] He said that on his good days, he could get around fine. But on his not so good days, when walking a single block felt insurmountable, he relied on the community at Providence House. “For kindness and comfort, you can’t get anything like this anywhere I’ve been.”

Even with the strong community, life at Providence House was often difficult.

“There is a serious drug problem, with all the upheaval and crime that go with it,” reads an early report from the sisters.[13] The neighborhood experienced lots of crime, including murder, armed robberry, muggings, and many drug-related charges.[14]

Sometimes that crime came home. Whenever a Providence House resident was arrested for a drug charge, the sisters offered them three choices. The resident could enter a rehab program and their unit would be held for them. They could move out. Or they could be evicted. Many tenants entered rehab, with the hope of being able to return home.

There was also the daily reality of illness and the all-too-present specter of death to contend with.

For her part, Sister KC had trained to be a hospital chaplain, emotionally challenging work. Sickness and death was never easy. But nothing had prepared her for the intensity of the challenges facing the residents at Providence House. One young man, who normally flowed with effervescent energy, looked so down one day.

“Kimbo, what’s going on?” Sister KC asked.

“I just buried my twenty-fourth friend,” he replied, breaking down into tears.

Sister KC held him. And together, they wept for all that loss.

When residents at Providence House approached the end of their lives, Tim, Sister KC, and the other staff tried to help them die with dignity. The staff was present with the residents in their final days. They helped plan funerals. Held memorial services in the common spaces. And sometimes, they even scattered the ashes of their residents who had become their friends.

But even in the midst of all that pain and suffering, there were also moments of new possibilities, instances of healing and hope.

Among that first group of residents to make Providence House their home was John Neilson.

John was only in his early 30s, but he had already endured a lifetime of challenges, including sexual abuse, addiction to drugs, and now a diagnosis of HIV. When he moved into Providence House, John hoped for a clean apartment and a bed to sleep in. What he discovered, instead, was much more than that, including a small community dedicated to helping him and the other residents.[15]

The next several years were not easy. He still battled addiction, which he thinks may have been fueled by seeing so many of his neighbors move into Providence House, and then die from AIDS-related complications shortly after. But John also took several steps toward recovery and healing. He worked with therapists. Took advantage of the massage and acupuncture offered at the house. Began attending Mass and became a Catholic. He even rekindled his love of art, eventually creating a series of provocative paintings, some using his own blood, that called attention to the ongoing HIV crisis.[16]

Over the years, John developed a friendship with Tim. They engaged in long conversations, worked together in the community garden. One day, Tim paused and looked directly at John.

“Are you ready to go into treatment?” John remembers Tim asking him.

“Yes,” John said. “I’m ready.”

Decades later, John credits the community at Providence House, especially Tim, for helping him find a path toward healing.

“It’s been quite an incredible journey,” he told me. “I don’t think I would have gotten clean quite the same way, and started going to meetings, if I hadn’t been living at Providence House.”

John has been sober for more than a decade and today, he works to help others battle addiction. He is one of three original residents still living at Providence House, and he lends support to other residents coping with their own journeys through life with HIV.

When I asked John what he wanted others to know about Providence House, about the sisters who started it and the staff who stuck by him, he paused for a moment.

“It’s saved quite a few people’s lives,” he stated matter-of-factly. “And it’s given a lot of people hope.”

Forty-four people living at Providence House died from AIDS-related complications during its first five years of operation. Drug abuse was especially prevalent, which brought crime into the house. Some residents, shunned by friends and family and cast aside by society, harbored anger and resentment. It wasn’t always an easy place to live.

But there were also moments of joy. Especially around the holidays. Pumpkin carving and trick or treating for local kids. Thanksgiving potlucks. Kwanzaa celebrations. And a slew of events to celebrate Christmas.

The sisters noted that even by just the second Christmas in which residents were living at the house, traditions had already developed.

“This is how we decorate here.”

“We always have a big brunch on Christmas morning.”

“Staff always make special cookies or candy.”[17]

On New Year's Eve, residents braced for what Sister Mary described as Oakland’s “strange and frightening New Year’s custom.”

“At the stroke of midnight, along with the usual whistles and horns, firearms are discharged into the sky,” she recalled. “Hundreds of gunshots are heard.”

The next morning, residents gathered in the common room for a New Year’s Day brunch.

Other times, the common space was used to host social gatherings. Or to display works from local artists. Or even to host a fashion show—for Barbie and Ken.

One of the residents loved to sew and had an eye for style and fashion. Once a year, he took over a common room for the weekend to stage a fashion show unlike anything most people had ever seen. It was “an unusual event,” as one former staff remember recalled, but all weekend, people would come and go, soaking up the dresses and accessories. In doll-size bites.[18]

“There was so much sadness, but there was also celebration that was always happening,” Tim recalled. “There was really a beautiful balance, countering all the tragedy with equal amounts of joy.”

When I asked Tim what made Providence House different from other affordable-housing programs, it didn’t take him long to answer. It was the sisters. Tim had sent me some photos from that time, including one of him with his arm around Sister KC. He’s wearing baggy khakis and an orange-checkered, button-down shirt. Sister KC sports a dress with a red, gold, and black southwestern pattern, along with a blue sweater. It must be fall or winter. They are both smiling big, standing in front of a small kitchen with a couple of large coffee urns.

Tim would have been in his 30s. He looks so young. But that’s not what gives me pause. Instead, I know that many of the people Tim assisted during his time at Providence House were around the same age. So many lives cut short.

The presence of the sisters shaped the culture of the house. Sister Mary beamed a can-do attitude. Sister KC’s warmth made her a natural at getting residents to open up. There were opportunities for spiritual nourishment, field trips to San Francisco. But more than that, it was a vow the sisters took to serve people in need, which, as Tim put it years later, imbued in the staff and residents some “healthy skepticism about boundaries.”

Take Kevin Brooks.

After graduating high school in New York City in the 1970s, Kevin joined the Navy and eventually moved to Oakland, where he worked as a computer programmer for the California State Automobile Association. When his health began to decline in the late 1980s, he left that job and focused his energy on educating others about HIV prevention.

Kevin produced a series about HIV for a local radio station, “The Color of AIDS,” and he and a group of friends created an AIDS-education program, “Rap City—A Safe Time in Sex Town.” They rapped about safe-sex in Black gay bars throughout San Francisco and Oakland. Eventually, they were asked to play in clubs throughout the country.[19] A photo of Kevin taken before he became ill shows a handsome young man, a shy smile across his face.

But by the time Tim met Kevin, in 1995, those days were over.

AIDS had taken a toll on Kevin. Enduring with a double amputation, he was confined to a wheelchair and he was largely unable to care for himself. At first, Kevin treated Tim with skepticism. Tim was white, Kevin was Black. Tim was mobile, Kevin was not. And perhaps most angering to Kevin, Tim was alive. And he was dying.

One afternoon, Kevin was struggling. His caregiver had not shown up. His partner, John, was still at work. He needed help. He had soiled himself in bed and the extra towels were across the room, out of reach.

When Tim got a call from Kevin, he heard the fear and anger in his voice. It would not have been inexcusable for Tim to tell Kevin to hang on, that he’d try to find somebody else to help. After all, this was not an assisted-living facility.

As Tim recalled years later, “That level of engagement with Kevin would have been so far beyond what was appropriate in my role.”

But the sisters, they had blurred those lines. They responded with compassion whenever there was a need. For the sisters, after all, this was a ministry. Tim had seen that ethos play out many times.

So Tim went up to Kevin’s room. He asked how he could help. They developed a plan. They cleaned up the room. Remade the bed. Got Kevin situated. And then Tim stayed, and listened, until Kevin fell asleep. He recognized this kind of intimate friendship was unique to these kinds of settings.

“You get the unedited, completely raw version of your clients, your tenants,” Tim recalled. “You get to see them in different contexts, with their neighbors and their caregivers. This lends itself to raw and honest experiences.”

Over the next six months, Kevin and Tim talked frequently. They learned each other’s stories. Kevin even asked Tim to help spread his ashes in San Francisco Bay when the time came.

In April, 1996, Kevin Brooks died from AIDS-related complications. In his obituary, Kevin asked one final request from those who loved him, to support Providence House. He was just 38, one of the more than 362,000 Americans at that point, mostly gay men, who had died from AIDS.

But for Tim, Kevin was far more than a statistic. He was a friend, one of many in Tim’s life whose stories ended early because of this horrible disease.

In the first few years that Providence House was open, more than 10 residents died each year. By 1996, that number was down to four. HIV and AIDS was changing, and Providence House had the opportunity to focus on helping residents live. In 2000, their efforts were recognized nationally, with the Department of Housing and Urban Development holding up Providence House for its commitment to providing quality housing to the community.[20]

Providence House, which was renovated in 2018, with new siding, windows, and even the installation of solar panels to help with sustainability, still operates today as a ministry sponsored by the Sisters of Providence.[21]

Sister Mary Grondin, SP, left Providence House Oakland in 1993, having been assigned to oversee the construction of another affordable housing project. Before she retired, in 2007, she helped launch another AIDS ministry, helping  women in Portland, Oregon. She died in 2018.

Sister KC Young, OP, wrapped up her ministry at Providence House in 1995. She has worked in pastoral ministry in several capacities, including with Native Americans and leading an organization that helps people upon their release from prison.

Tim Zaricznyj, who could never really imagine working for two sisters back in the early 1990s, is now the executive director of Providence Supportive Housing, which operates 18 affordable-housing facilities in California, Oregon, and Washington. Nearly 800 people live in units that they otherwise may not be able to afford on their own. Tim says the lessons he learned from the sisters still guide his work.

“We became their family network. We became their social network,” Tim recalls of the residents at Providence House. “I attribute that, not entirely, but significantly, to the presence of the sisters, the sisters fulfilling their obligations and their vows and just doing what sisters do.”

About the author:

Michael J. O'Loughlin is a journalist, author, commentator, and speaker who covers religion and politics with a particular focus on the Catholic Church.

Sources:

 [1] D’Anna, John. “Bleak life on the streets only future for most homeless,” Oakland Tribune, Dec. 10, 1986.

[2] Ervin, Keith. “Peace activists reflect on the penalties and potential of anti-weapons demonstrations,” The News Tribune, Aug. 7. 1983.

[3] Pace, Charlotte, “Providence sisters open low-income housing complex,” The Catholic Voice, Oct. 7, 1991.

[4] Pace.

[5] Author interview with Sister KC Young, Sep. 1, 2022.

[6] Howe, Marvine, “For people with AIDS, housing is hard to find,” New York Times, June 25, 1984.

[7] Hubler, Shawn and Victor F. Zonana, “AIDS adds to ranks of homeless,” Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1990, via newspapers.com.

[8] Chronicles.

[9] Pace.

[10] Author interview with Sister KC Young, Sep. 1, 2022.

[11] Chronicles.

[12] Pace.

[13] Chronicles.

[14] Snyder, Bill, “Residents want city to close 2 businesses,” Oakland Tribune, Jan. 13, 1992.

[15] Author interview with John Neilson, Oct. 17, 2022.

[16] Thym, Jolene. “HIV-infected artists draw strength from ‘Positive Art,’” Oakland Tribune, July 29, 1995.

[17] Chronicles.

[18] Author interview with Sister K.C. Young, Sep. 1, 2022.

[19] Examiner Staff Report, “Kevin G. Brooks,” San Francisco Examiner, Apr. 6, 1996.

[20] Smerken, Daniel, email memo, July 25, 2000.

[21] Zaricznyj, Timothy, “Providence House Oakland renovation complete,” providence.org, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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