Sister Carol couldn’t believe the view. It was 1987 and she had just landed in New York. A sister who lived at the convent she and Mary Ellen would call home for the next few months picked them up from the airport. As the nuns drove over the Fifty-Ninth-Street Bridge the enormity of Sister Carol’s decisions hit her. She had never even visited New York City. Yet here she was, with all of Manhattan on display to greet her. She looked, wide-eyed, at Sister Mary Ellen, her mind racing.
“Everything is just huge and big and amazing and coming at you like, oh my God,” she thought.
Just a few years before, Sister Carol had turned forty and experienced something of a vocational crisis. She was burnt out from her intense nursing career and knew she needed a change. That change had been taking on homecare nursing in Belleville. And now, all of a sudden, here she was in New York, ready to learn all she could about gay life and AIDS care. It was heady stuff—had she the time to dwell on it. But the car pulled to a stop in Hell’s Kitchen.
“Welcome to Sacred Heart Convent!” their driver said cheerfully.
Sister Carol was stunned by her surroundings. Garbage bags were piled high on the sidewalk, and the stench took her breath away. People were lying in doorways. And there was so much graffiti. Sister Carol thought she had seen poverty and urban decay back in the Midwest, in Detroit and St. Louis, but this was next-level. New York City in the 1980s was tough. Murder rates soared each year, and cheap drugs flooded the city. Muggings were common occurrences on the city’s poorly maintained subways. Sensing Sister Carol’s discomfort, one of the New York nuns offered a short introduction and some rules of the road.
“Number one, don’t walk too close to the alley, because somebody will probably jump out and stab you,” the sister explained calmly. “Number two, don’t walk too close to a building, because an air conditioner will probably fall on you. And number three, don’t carry a purse. You’re gonna be here for six months, so you’ll probably be mugged.”
“Well, OK then,” Sister Carol said.
The next morning, Sister Carol and Sister Mary Ellen would head to Saint Vincent’s Hospital to meet some of the staff and the pastoral care team members. They would meet the chaplains, people like Father Bill McNichols, and learn about the kind of care people with AIDS received at the hospital. Sister Carol was excited by the possibilities of this new ministry, but she had much to learn.
When it was time to head out, she and Sister Mary Ellen realized they had no idea how to use the subway. They wound up getting off the train too early and became confused. But one thing was clear: they did not see a hospital.
They tried asking for directions but, recalling the warning they received back at the convent, they worried someone might try to rob or stab them. Plus, there were those dangerous air conditioners. They decided to walk. And walk. And walk. They finally found the hospital, but they were sweating and tired and unsure where they had even been. Learning to navigate New York would take time. And the confusion on the subway was just the beginning.
While city life took some getting used to, the purpose of the visit was to learn about the services offered in New York for people at risk of contracting HIV. Sister Carol and Sister Mary Ellen stayed focused on that. Similar to what Sister Patrice and Father Bill had done when they wanted to learn about HIV and AIDS, Sister Carol and Sister Mary Ellen signed up for training at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the group David Pais helped grow, so they could volunteer on an AIDS hotline at Saint Clare’s Hospital.
Following the training, the two nuns got to work. The hotline was housed in a small office inside the hospital, with room for just a couple of phones, a table, and two chairs. There was a massive binder for Sister Carol to read that would acquaint her with some of the questions she might be asked by the callers, who phoned anonymously so they could ask candid questions about HIV and AIDS. The callers didn’t know a middle-aged nun was on the other end of the phone. And they didn’t hold back.
“Are threesomes more dangerous than sex with one guy?”
“Do all condoms work the same or are some better than others?”
“What about sex toys, are those safe?”
“I’m seventy-six years old, I’ve been married to my wife for more than fifty years, and I’m gay,” one caller asked Carol. “How do I come out?”
How was a Catholic nun supposed to know?
“Please hold,” Carol said, yelling over to her colleague for advice. Sister Carol’s visits to the city’s AIDS wards didn’t feel any more successful than her early efforts on the hotline. When she arrived at a patient’s room one day, she found his empty bed. The patient was in the bathroom, so Carol sat down and waited for him to return. On a side table there was an issue of Better Homes and Gardens, so she picked it up and started reading.
But as she flipped through the pages, her jaw dropped. Better Homes and Gardens, she quickly realized, was just a shell. The hotline questions, however graphic, did not prepare her for what she saw tucked in the magazine: tips for better gay sex—with photo illustrations.
When the patient returned, he saw a middle-aged nun reading his magazine. Sister Carol looked at him sheepishly. She tried breaking the ice.
“Do you . . . do this kind of stuff?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said. He was unabashed. After all, it was Sister Carol who had read his magazine. Why should he feel embarrassed? “Does it make a difference?”
Sister Carol felt she owed her patients honesty, even if that meant admitting her uneasiness about a lifestyle she didn’t understand.
“I really don’t know,” she said.
What Sister Carol didn’t know was if she was capable of providing compassionate care to a community whose lives were so different from her own, who inhabited realities that appeared to run contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church, the institution to which she had devoted her entire life. Sometimes it was all too much for her. She wasn’t totally comfortable with hearing so much about sex. After a stint working the hotline, with the deluge of sex questions continuing unabated, Sister Carol went for a long walk to think and pray. When she returned to the convent, she vented to Sister Mary Ellen.
“I’ve had it up to here with sex,” she said, holding her hand high above her head, her voice tinged with frustration. She considered packing up. She had given her big city adventure the college try, but it wasn’t working out. Maybe she could do something else back in Belleville.
But Sister Mary Ellen reminded Sister Carol that she wasn’t one to give up. She was a tough, Polish nun who didn’t shirk responsibility. She just needed to give it a bit more time. Carol knew Mary Ellen was right.
The two sisters visited various clinics and hospitals around the city, which is how they met Will Wake, a nurse on one of the city’s AIDS wards. Will was a lifelong Catholic who took a liking to the pair of Midwestern nuns. They reminded him of his own family. He appreciated that they were eager to learn, and he saw their kindness as authentic. They weren’t as brassy as the New Yorkers he encountered all day. Plus there was a local connection: Will’s dad had been stationed in Belleville when he was in the Air Force. It almost seemed fated that the three of them would hit it off. Will wanted the two nuns to be successful in their quest to learn more about HIV and AIDS and he knew just the person who could help.
Will’s partner, Jim D’Eramo, was something of an expert when it came to HIV. He was a journalist who helped chronicle AIDS by keeping his readers up to date on the latest scientific research. Like Will, Jim was a lifelong Catholic with a soft spot for nuns. Will and Jim had met as volunteers at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and they were eager to talk with anyone who wanted to contribute to the cause. Especially two Midwestern nuns. Perhaps over drinks in one of New York’s gay bars.
Sister Carol was transfixed by Will and Jim. She felt safe asking them questions about the AIDS hotline, and she was comfortable being vulnerable around them. She told them she felt confused about everything she was learning. Jim was blunt, which at first took Sister Carol some getting used to, but it was a trait she eventually came to admire. Jim knew that for the disease to slow, people had to use technical language about how it spread from person to person. There could be nothing mealy-mouthed when it came to prevention. She listened and began to understand why the hotline questions were so graphic. The callers weren’t trying to shock her; they were trying to save their lives.
During one of their group dinners, Sister Carol talked about her uncertainty about her work when Jim interrupted her. As I learned during my own interview with Jim, he’s not shy about cutting through the noise and saying what’s on his mind.
“Before you go anywhere trying to help a person with AIDS, you have to do two things,” Jim told Carol. “You have to look at your own prejudices and biases, and you have to look at your own stand on sexuality. Otherwise you’ll never get past your own hang-ups and understand what it means to be diagnosed with AIDS.”
Jim’s piece of advice made everything click for Sister Carol in a way that had so far been elusive. What he said made sense to her. The magazine with provocative photos of gay men and hotline questions about the risks of certain sex acts weren’t the problem. The issues were Sister Carol’s, and she had to deal with them if she wanted to be an effective ally in the fight against AIDS. That insight from Jim, the idea that Sister Carol needed to name her own biases before engaging in HIV and AIDS care, changed how she approached the rest of her time in New York. She saw her work in a new light. The shift in focus played a critical role over the next several weeks and gave her the ability to allow a chance meeting with a gay man outside the convent to change her life.
Through volunteering at Saint Clare’s, Mary Ellen had met a man in his thirties named Robert. Despite their three-decades-wide age difference, the Midwestern nun and the gay New Yorker hit it off. Robert volunteered at the hospital because his partner, Josh, had AIDS. He thought helping others cope was the best way he could respond to the confusion caused by the diagnosis. Recognizing how well Sister Carol had responded to Will and Jim, Sister Mary Ellen introduced her to Robert as well, trying to put another face to the community being most affected by HIV.
One evening after dinner, Sister Carol stepped out of the convent for some air. As she sat on the stoop, she noticed Robert walking toward her. He seemed to be shaking. As he got closer, Sister Carol saw him crying uncontrollably, his hands trembling.
“Oh, Robert,” Sister Carol said.
“Hi, sister,” he replied through his tears.
Carol was quiet.
“Josh is dying and there is nothing I can do.”
Sister Carol couldn’t think of anything to say that would be helpful at that moment. So she did what she would do for any other person who was upset because a loved one was dying. She held Robert and let him cry into her shoulder. He eventually composed himself, thanked Sister Carol, and walked on. The next morning, Sister Carol learned that Josh had died overnight.
That moment stuck with Carol. She might never be comfortable with all the sex. After all, it was so different from her own life experience. But holding Robert, seeing how upset he was that Josh lay dying and that he was powerless to help, that was something Sister Carol implicitly understood.
“The love that was there . . . ,” Sister Carol thought to herself.
The advice from Jim and the encounter with Robert forced Sister Carol to shift the frame through which she saw her work on the AIDS floors. She no longer focused on the sex, but instead on the tenderness she saw between gay couples. She watched as young men held vigil at their dying lovers’ bedsides, never leaving them alone. She saw how effortlessly they vacillated between speaking tenderly when their boyfriends were upset and sarcastically when they needed joy and laughter. Groups of friends visited with regularity, trying desperately to transform the bleak hospital ward into a more genial environment. Love seemed to be everywhere.
“Why is this wrong?” Sister Carol asked herself. She knew what the church taught about gay love. She knew what she was supposed to believe. And yet, she thought, “This can’t be wrong. You couldn’t say it was wrong.”
Sister Carol and Sister Mary Ellen spent about six months in New York City. But the way Carol talks about her time at Saint Clare’s and Saint Vincent’s, working the hotline, meeting people like Will and Jim and Robert, it feels as if it could have been years. When their immersion experience finished, she was not the same person as when she arrived.
Sister Carol met more gay men during those few months in New York than she had ever known in her forty-four years of life. She challenged herself to think not about lifestyles and sex acts and church rules—and instead to focus on love. These were lessons Sister Carol knew she needed if she were to contribute to the fight against HIV back home in Belleville. Seeing the range of services available to people with HIV and AIDS in New York showed Sister Carol the possibilities for ministry back home. She was ready to get started—albeit still frightened of what lay ahead.
This is an excerpt from Hidden Mercy chapter 10: “You Couldn’t Say It Was Wrong.”