"Old Order with a New Mission," Washington Post (8/31/1991)

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"Old Order with a New Mission," Washington Post (8/31/1991)


Jody Becker & Nancy Andrews




Account of the efforts to establish HOM, the experiences of the early residents, and a focus on the members and mission of the Sisters of Mercy.


Washington D.C.


Washington Post



Ken Young takes as many as eight medications each day and sometimes feels cold enough to wear a sweat shirt, although the temperature is more than 90 degrees. He is 40 years old, has AIDS and requires 24-hour supervision.

Young is among several men accepted as residents at the House of Mercy hospice, which welcomes and cares for people with AIDS and is run by the Sisters of Mercy, an order of Roman Catholic nuns, on their convent grounds here.

Although relations between the Catholic church and gay Catholics often have been strained, this haven of dignity and reason is the brainchild of nuns with a historical mission and a 1990s sensibility.

"It's been like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole all the way," said Sister Mary Margaret Wright, the nun in charge. "But I also knew that it was just right."

Trained to respond to medical crises, the Sisters of Mercy were dispatched by the church in the 1860s to Charleston, S.C., to battle yellow fever, and in the early 1900s, they established a tuberculosis sanitorium in Asheville, N.C.

In the 1950s, the order moved to this bedroom community outside Charlotte, where it runs a small hospital for profoundly disabled children and, until 1987, ran the now-defunct Sacred Heart College.

In 1988, the nuns decided to respond to the AIDS crisis.

"We just looked around and saw the need for housing was clear," said Sister Mary, 39, who swigs diet soft drinks, has a telephone answering machine and sometimes dresses quite casually.

The hospice here is one of at least 30 Catholic facilities that are sponsored by 25 U.S. dioceses and specialize in residential care for AIDS patients, according to church officials.

These include the Gift of Peace facility of the Missionaries of Charity nuns in Northeast Washington.

"I'm lucky," Young said. "I got to make a whole new bunch of friends. This has added a whole new dimension to my life. There isn't enough money in the world to buy compassion and love."

Another resident, who has since left the facility to live elsewhere, recalled being afraid that he would not be liked because he was black. Instead, he was greeted with hugs.

Young's new family includes Sister Mary; Beth Maren, the resident director; one part-time and two full-time staff members; and 32 trained volunteers ranging in age from 19 to their late sixties.

After a three-year struggle to raise money and meet strict group housing codes, the hospice opened May 18. The six-bedroom, ranch-style home covers 4,200 square feet and is a model of comfort, from plush carpeting to decorator wallpaper.

Most of the living room furniture was appropriated from the convent's motherhouse and reupholstered.

Each of the two three-bedroom wings of the house is outfitted with a special bathroom to accommodate wheelchairs. The carpeted hallways are extra wide, and each bedroom has a new bed, bureau and easy chair and an emergency-call button within reach of the beds.

"It meets the institutional requirements, but I have this aversion to an institution, so I tried to do it as homelike as possible," Sister Mary said. "Hospital beds are available if we need them, but we made a conscious decision not to furnish it that way." Out front, horses graze lazily. Sheltering pines fringe the back yard.

In the decade before the hospice opened, 1,057 of 1,709 AIDS patients in North Carolina died.

More than 400 clients now are served by the Metrolina AIDS Project, a Charlotte-based organization that reaches into seven urban and semirural counties, including Gaston, where the House of Mercy is located.

"We have a list" of people who could use the housing, said David Prybylo, AIDS educator with the project. "Some are just dying on the streets." When the hospice opened, seven people on a waiting list twice as long had died.

Sister Mary, a social worker with several years of experience as a counselor to troubled youngsters and the elderly, said the number of AIDS patients impressed her.

"I knew nothing about nothing," she said of her lack of experience at AIDS fund-raising, "except I knew what we needed."

With the help of her convent's superior general, Sister Pauline Clifford, who has a master's degree in business administration, Sister Mary raised the initial building costs from the Sisters of Mercy, the Diocese of Charlotte and an $80,000 loan.

She raised another $300,000 for operating costs through individual donations and by applying for grants with local foundations.

One anonymous supporter sends her a card on holidays with $5 or $10 inside and the words "What you are doing is wonderful" in the shaky script of an elderly person.

Sister Mary has projected a three-year budget. The rest, she said, is a "leap of faith."

To learn about running a hospice, Sister Mary gleaned information at similar East Coast facilities. "But nothing was exactly what we needed," she said. "I was reading the {state code} family care manual constantly, which became second only to my Bible."

Although the convent grounds include several abandoned buildings ripe for renovation, retrofitting one to meet the strict codes would have been more expensive than constructing a new facility.

The house is available to AIDS patients of any or no denomination and is staffed around the clock.

Residents pay what they can, and the diocese has promised to remain supportive.

"Once I heard the statistics, I knew we needed to respond," said Bishop John Donoghue, who conceded that responding to the AIDS crisis "is a challenge for us. We can't ignore these people because we don't approve of their lifestyle. You have to love the sinner and hate the sin."

If the Sisters of Mercy are ecclesiastical outlaws, they have a gentle touch. "I know there are those who are saying, `Those rascals down in Belmont,' " Sister Mary said. "But we're just responding to the gospel values of compassion and justice. We're not here to judge how a person got AIDS."

PHOTO,,Nancy Andrews CAPTION:Ken Young, center, and two other residents of the House of Mercy share conversation in the living room. The six-bedroom home opened in May. CAPTION:Sister Mary, above left, with staff member Michele Lennon and a resident of House of Mercy, the project she spearheaded. Below, Beth Maren, the resident director, lends a comforting hand.


House of Mercy Archive: Binder 1 (1990-1999)

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