The ‘Great Secret’ of San Francisco’s AIDS Response

As the HIV/AIDS crisis flared in the 1980s, the Catholic Church in San Francisco was at the forefront of serving unmet material and spiritual needs.

(photo: UnSplash)

SAN FRANCISCO — The early days of the AIDS epidemic of San Francisco marked a time of fear, uncertainty and suffering. But amid the anxiety and confusion, those in need of treatment and care found one of their biggest advocates and supporters in the Catholic Church. 

“I always think it’s one of the great secrets of San Francisco County that Archbishop [John] Quinn and Catholic Charities reached out very early on in the epidemic to serve people who had HIV and AIDS,” said George Simmons, senior program director at Catholic Charities Assisted Housing and Health in an interview with CNA.  

“I think it was a part of the faith of the Catholic community to say — I hate to use this cliché, but — ‘What would Jesus do?’” Simmons added.

Among the groundbreaking elements of the Church’s response, Simmons said, was that “the Catholic Church was one of the first with programs for women and children.”

“We prevented a larger outbreak of HIV and AIDS in women and children,” he said, explaining that, “at the time, the epidemic was primarily focused on men, because that was the majority of the people who were infected.”  

The Catholic community realized that the virus was spreading, and other populations — including women and people of color — were becoming infected, he said. “We responded very early, and it helped.” 

In the early 1980s, doctors started noticing clusters of rare cancers and infections in cities such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. In 1982, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) named the syndrome Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, and opened the first clinic to treat AIDS in San Francisco. It was later discovered that the disease was caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, and transmitted through bodily fluids. 

Meanwhile, the virus took a staggering human toll. By 1994, HIV infection and related illnesses had become the leading cause of death in the United States among people aged 25 to 44 years old. 

Eventually, advances in antiretroviral treatments would increase the lifespan of those able to receive them, and debates over prevention would gain prominence. But as the outbreak was just beginning in San Francisco, information about the virus was lacking. All that was clear was that people were in need of help. 

And the Catholic Church responded swiftly. “Archbishop Quinn reacted very early to the crisis,” said Deacon Jeff Burns, recently retired archivist for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. 

“Much was done in the early days,” he told CNA in a statement. He pointed to Dominican Father Michael Lopes, who set up an initial office of AIDS ministry at the archdiocese. This included the formation of an AIDS hospice and programs to educate local communities on the disease and decrease fear and stigma. 


Most Holy Redeemer’s Response

One of the local parishes at the center of the outbreak — and response — was Most Holy Redeemer, located in the Castro District, a prominent “LGBT neighborhood” in central San Francisco. Father Tony McGuire, former pastor of Most Holy Redeemer, described in an oral history video for the parish about what the community experienced as the epidemic broke in the 1980s. 

“There was this kind of anxiety about how the disease was communicated,” he explained, and the anxiety even carried over into worship. “The devotion to the Precious Blood dwindled,” he continued, adding that people became “much more reserved” at the Sign of Peace and other parts of the Mass. “A number of people even left the parish.” 

But even during the initial period of fear, parishioners tried to help and do what they could, Father McGuire said. Some who were doctors or medical professionals helped to educate parishioners about the disease and how it was transmitted as information became available. 

“That became a great source of relief,” he recalled.  

Prayer also became a foundation for Most Holy Redeemer’s ministry to those with HIV/AIDS, the priest said. “What do we do when we don’t know what to do? We pray.”

One of the first tasks that brought peace to the parish was the creation of a list of the sick, so that they could be named in the Prayers of the Faithful. In 1987, the parish also drafted a scroll with the names of the dead, both from AIDS and of other causes, as a symbol of remembrance and as a tool for the faithful to use in their prayers. 


Eucharistic Devotion

Devotion to the Eucharist was also revived at Most Holy Redeemer as a response to the AIDS crisis. During a liturgy meeting, Father McGuire recalled, a parishioner asked where a parish tradition of 40 hours of exposition and worship of the Blessed Sacrament had originated and why it had stopped. Father replied that while the devotion had faded in the parish over time, he thought it had started when a plague hit San Francisco.

“Well, we’ve got a plague going on; why don’t we do the 40 Hours [devotion]?” the parishioner responded.

The exposition, which was joined by local religious sisters and Archbishop Quinn, made a deep impact on the parish, Father McGuire recounted.

“The 40 Hours became a kind of turning point,” he said. The devotion and exposition “became a way the community responded, both in prayer and in service to a great need.”

The exposition made a difference to individuals as well.

“I remember one man came who had been a brother at one time in his life, and he had left the Church,” the priest said. “When the bar closed, he just happened to walk in while in passing, and the Blessed Sacrament was exposed.”  

“He felt great calm and came back the next day,” his former pastor said. “It became a time for him to return to the Church. Sometime later, he himself was diagnosed with AIDS, but he was able to die reconciled and at peace.”


AIDS Support Groups

“Eventually parishioners wanted to respond in a more direct way, and they created the AIDS support group in 1985,” Father McGuire said, bringing together people of all walks of life within the parish. 

The members would go out together to visit AIDS patients, deliver meals, help with errands and offer emotional and spiritual support. For many facing HIV/AIDS, “it became a real resource for them.” 

The AIDS support group at Most Holy Redeemer still exists today, said Pete Toms, the program coordinator.

“It’s an important parish outreach to the community,” he told CNA, with volunteers from the parish as well as from the neighborhood at large helping to provide home assistance, care and other kinds of support to those with HIV/AIDS. “For many, I think, the time has come in their life to do something for others.” 

Some of the support group’s beneficiaries come through local programs, including those operated by Catholic Charities, Toms said. 

Simmons explained that Catholic Charities offers a variety of financial and counseling programs for those with HIV/AIDS, but a major concern is housing. 

“San Francisco’s one of the most expensive places to live in the world,” he noted. For many living with HIV/AIDS, finding affordable housing, much less paying for expensive treatments and doctors’ appointments, is a daunting task. “It’s important that they have housing and services for that reason.”


Continuing to Help

The main goal, he continued, is to make sure that those that have HIV/AIDS have access to medical care. Because the city was one of the first to face a large outbreak, “we have a very, very good system of care in San Francisco for people with HIV and AIDS.” 

When patients lacking access to housing and medical care come to Catholic Charities, Simmons said, the aim is for those patients not only to find, but continue, to receive the treatment they need. “Our first goal when someone comes to us is to link them with care. The second priority is to give them stable housing.”

The number of lives saved by these care and housing programs is unknown, particularly the lives of women and children with HIV/AIDS, who at the time were often overlooked in care programs.

“Catholic Charities and the Archdiocese of San Francisco have been very involved since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic to serve people,” Simmons said. Today, the organization serves “more than 1,000 people every month.” 

“There are many Catholic communities in many cities across the states that have responded in kind,” he explained. “We just happened to be here at the beginning of the epidemic and have been here since.”

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