Written by Michael Fones
Tuesday, 22 December 2009 14:37
by Fr. Michael Fones, O.P., co-director, Catherine of Siena Institute
In the early 1980’s, Fr. Joseph O’Brien, OP, seemed to be settling into a long ministerial career. He was vice-principal at Mater Dei High School in Orange County, CA, and was engaging his substantial musical gifts (he’s an Irish tenor) teaching in the school’s excellent music program. He figured he would be engaged in music and high school teaching for the rest of his ordained life, but something disturbing began to happen.
Members of the faculty began going to the funerals of their brothers, many of whom were succumbing at young ages to a strange new disease. Oddly, however, the faculty members did not want to talk much about these devastating deaths. Eventually, Fr. Joseph discovered the young men were dying of an illness called GRIDD (gay-related immune deficiency disease). They were embarrassed to admit that their brothers were gay. As Fr. Joseph began listening to their stories of pain and shame, he realized that they – and the mothers of the deceased men who were often angry that their son had been gay and now was dead – needed to experience compassion. He soon began hearing of men who had contracted the disease and began to be called to visit them in the hospital.
“You could be pretty sure that they were gay, but that didn’t matter. All I could do was try to help them through their illness and quick death,” he told me.
St. Joseph Hospital in Orange offered a workshop on this strange new virus because Orange County, along with New York City, Miami, and San Francisco seemed to be ‘ground zero’ for the disease. In 1983 he received a certificate for one-to-one ministry to those who had the newly named disease: AIDS. From there he began reading more about the disease. Soon, a hemophiliac brother of one of the students at Mater Dei contracted the virus through a transfusion. When a neighbor found out, he torched the home of the family.
Ryan White, a teenaged hemophiliac with the disease became the face for children with the virus, and after his death the federal government began to fund research and support for people with AIDS.
Then providence, working through the assignation process in the Dominican Province, sent him from Orange to the friars’ parish in San Francisco. Fr. Joseph’s life took a dramatic turn.
“At St. Dominic’s we were already working at four hospitals and five convalescent homes in the parish, and while I was there, 90% of the patients in the hospitals were HIV+. The Irwin Memorial blood bank was five blocks away from the parish, and just sitting on the information that indicated that the virus was blood-borne. Yet they did nothing. They saw their business crumbling if people knew what was going on. I was presiding over nine funerals a week – but so were the pastor and the other associate. If I met you, and you were HIV+, I knew I’d be doing your funeral within a year.”
At that time the archdiocese of San Francisco was keen on dealing with the situation, yet many priests were uncomfortable or refusing to see those who had AIDS.
“One evening I was called to see someone in the Castro district. I drove out there, but couldn’t find a place to park near the address. I ended up parking a number of blocks away, but didn’t know what I was going to be walking into. I was in my habit and was carrying the Blessed Sacrament and the oils. It was evening and people were out having dinner. I represented the Church and was booed and spat upon as I walked by. I would just reach into the pocket of my habit, touch the pyx, and keep walking. I finally arrived at the address, and had to step around a drunk on the stairs, who said, ‘Hey Fr., I was an altar boy growing up’ as I passed by. The fellow inside was in a coma and unconscious.”
“I asked his friend, ‘Why did you wait so long?’ He responded, ‘We didn’t know if a priest would come, or what a priest would say to him.’”
Fr. Joseph continued, “I spoke to the man in the coma. The thing that was remarkable was that his parents called from New York. His partner asked, ‘Would you talk with his parents?’ I took the receiver and we started talking. They were happy I was there, and were surprised to learn that I, too, was from New York. It turned out that they knew my parents. At that point they accepted everything about their son – including his dying of this horrific disease. That the son of people they knew and loved was there was a huge blessing for them.”
In 1988 Fr. Joseph was transferred to Most Holy Trinity parish in Phoenix, Arizona. He thought that he had left the scourge of the HIV virus behind him. That belief was short-lived. “In Phoenix I knew a family who had buried 5 hemophiliac sons who died of AIDS. We could have saved more people” if the information hidden in the records of the Irwin Memorial Blood Bank had been made public sooner.
Soon, however, Fr. Joseph was receiving calls from people in San Francisco to preside at their funerals. Often, they would add, “and I have a friend in Phoenix…” The first person in Phoenix he met who was HIV+ was an African-American nurse who contracted the virus through an inadvertent needle stick while she was working at San Francisco General Hospital. She was hoping to get well enough to return to San Francisco to die.
“At that time there was nothing for a black woman with HIV in Phoenix, but the Knights of Malta were starting a program. I got interested and in 1989 joined the board of directors. I became the volunteer coordinator in 1992, and the Knights asked me to become the director of the Malta Center in 1993.”
During the 1990’s the protase inhibitors came out, and the face of AIDS began to change. Women and children began to contract the virus, and funerals declined as people with the virus started to live longer. Because of that, the ministry changed to respond to different needs: now there was a need for a food pantry, alternative medicine - including massage - counseling, along with journeying with the dying.
“During my time in Phoenix I was still getting called because there were ministers who wouldn’t do anything with someone who was HIV+. Because of that I journeyed with a wide variety of people – even Jehovah’s Witnesses! I spoke to a group of elders from that community who were taking it out on the whole family. For example, they required members of a sick person’s family to us the bathroom across the street.”
A new aspect of his ministry came about almost by chance.
“I journeyed with a man who I asked to pray for St. Therese of Lisieux’s intercession. In being educated about AIDS at a gathering of the National Catholic AIDS organization in Chicago, I learned St. Therese was a perfect patron. She died at 24 of tuberculosis. Members of her family worked at the Pasteur Institute and her mother’s name was on the drug that was found to cure tuberculosis! It was also at the Pasteur Institute that the virus HIV was identified. Therese’s relatives worked there and still work there, so it’s possible her relatives may help find a cure for AIDS. We started doing things around Therese in Phoenix, and there was a remarkable reaction when we invoked her. Roses would appear.”
Fr. Joseph has lots of stories about St. Therese’s involvement in his ministry to those affected by and infected with HIV/AIDS.
“One day the massage therapist said it was a busy day. I commented, ‘I really enjoyed meeting your noon appointment,’ thinking about a young woman who had come in with her mother. We had been visiting after her massage and she asked if I’d bless her medal. She struggled to put it in my hand and on the back was the miraculous medal, but on the front was St. Therese holding the cross and roses – not the Blessed Mother. I’ve never seen a medal like it.”
The massage therapist was thoroughly confused and showed Fr. Joseph her appointment book. Her noon appointment had been a no-show, and all the other massage appointments were male.
“The young woman was St. Therese, and her ‘mother’ was the Blessed Mother!”
In 1997 Fr. Joseph took a few days off and traveled to Las Vegas with Fr. Daniel Syverstad, OP, the Provincial of the Western Province.
“He told me, ‘don’t get a hotel room, we’re staying with the bishop’.”
The Provincial was there to talk with the bishop about the Province starting a community in the city of Las Vegas, and Fr. Daniel wanted the bishop to know about Fr. Joseph’s ministry. “The bishop was so enthralled with what we were doing in Phoenix, that within a year he asked the Province to come to his diocese. He wanted me to start a ministry like that of the Malta Center in Phoenix.”
Soon the Western Province had a community in Las Vegas, staffing the campus ministry at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and preparing to open the first ministry to those whose lives were changed by HIV/AIDS.
Fr. Joseph remembers one of the initial meetings with Bishop Walsh. “The bishop always has the privilege of naming parishes. I swallowed quickly and told him about St. Therese and he was thrilled with that idea for a name” for the ministry.
The St. Therese Center opened on October 19, 1998, the first anniversary of St. Therese being named a doctor of the Church.
“We started with no clients, and now we have 4000 and four centers.” Fr. Joseph adds with a smile, “Over the years Therese has never let up – we know she’s around and involved. Her relics were touring the country and the bishop asked if I’d be the preacher at the cathedral at a Mass in her honor. I was dreading it, and on the day of the event, I prayed, “Therese, send me a sign that what I’m going to say is right. I was focusing on the eucharist, not her because I thought that’s what she would want. At the same point in time I told her, ‘we need a fundraiser, too’. I got to work that day, and there was a woman waiting for me at the Center who asked, ‘Can I talk to you?’
Once they were in Fr. Joseph’s office, the woman continued, “I have something for you and I want to explain it to you.” She brought out a long box and opened it. Inside was a dozen roses - all chocolate! She made chocolate roses, and she wanted to make them as a fundraiser for the St. Therese Center.
“That woman has raised $6000 selling those chocolate roses at $2 each!”
Just the other day a client named David came in with a major concern – he’s dealing with his dark side and does not want return to the ways of his past.
“I told him to pray to St. Therese. ‘Would she send some flowers?’ he asked. ‘Just ask her.’ I responded. Within ten minutes someone brought in a garbage can filled with bouquets of roses. I said, ‘Just put it there,’ and called in David to see how St. Therese had shown up. She’s still on our side.”
Two years ago the St. Therese Center’s annual retreat was a Called & Gifted Workshop. David went to it, and has since told Fr. Joseph that it saved his life. After discerning a charism of administration he became Fr. Joseph’s executive assistant and has brought much-needed organization and coordination of volunteers to the Center.
This has been a necessity, since the St. Therese Center has grown so much. It is now the only food pantry in southern Nevada and northern Arizona exclusively for people with HIV/AIDS. Last year over 2000 clients took advantage of their free clothing room, and 12,996 articles of clothing were given away. Here are a few more facts about the Center and its ministry from last year:
16,818 adults used the free food pantry; they also served 5,272 children and 1,499 over 60 years. 166 homeless used it throughout the year.
They also distributed 61,221 bags of groceries.
The Center collected 1,034,745 lbs. of food, including
• 145,000 lbs. of canned goods
• 101,000 lbs. of paper products
• 105,000 lbs. of glass products
• 118,000 lbs of meat
• 119,000 lbs. of produce
• 437,000 lbs. of breads, sweet cakes, cookies, and donuts
• 9,000 lbs. of dairy and eggs
3932 people were served in a sandwich program and Broadway Cares Actor’s Equity donates funds to support a new underwear and sock program. Other services provided by the St. Therese Center’s four locations include back-to-school supplies, retreats, haircuts, massages, furniture, and some emergency assistance. Br. Frederick Narberres, OP, is a social worker who works with Fr. Joseph to help provide case management – helping clients get funds for emergency assistance, including rent payment.
Fr. Joseph said, “We are a non-profit and have a budget of $555,000 a year to run the center. I have to raise that, and that’s what we give out. St. Rose Hospital provides 2 locations for $1/year, and Community Counseling provides our fourth space.” The current Bishop, Joseph Pepe, is also very supportive of the work of the Center, and of Fr. Joseph personally – even attending various fund-raisers and events the St. Therese Center hosts.
The St. Therese Center is also a source of information for the Las Vegas community. Fr. Joseph has given many workshops for healthcare workers, and last year gave 270 presentations in classes, schools, and churches throughout the Las Vegas region.
Fr. Joseph likely has charisms of mercy and encouragement, and that leads to his biggest frustration. “What drives me insane is I don’t know who some of our clients are. I’d like to be listening to them and being on their journey – including their journey of faith. It’d be nice to not have to be a full-time fundraiser.”
Part of that fundraising involves making appeals at local parishes. “I have carried a baby through a homily at five or six Masses, talking about how our ministry helps keep the baby and parents safe. That is an important story for people to hear.”
The support for the ministry of the St. Therese Center comes from beyond Las Vegas. This autumn the Stanford Newman Center community is writing thanksgiving notes for food baskets.
“Some of our clients will put it on their refrigerator and take comfort from it all year long. Therese did this sort of thing – writing notes of encouragement for others,” Fr. Joseph observed.
The Little Flower seems to be watching over Fr. Joseph as his “call within a call” continues to blossom like one of her exquisite roses.