St. Anthony Shrine Displays AIDS Memorial Quilt as Part of LGBTQ Spirituality Ministry

Monday December 20, 2021
Originally published on December 8, 2021

The December 1 mass at St. Anthony Shrine.
The December 1 mass at St. Anthony Shrine.  (Source:Julianne Gauron)

Amid the ongoing pandemic, which continues to take its physical and emotional toll, some might consider the AIDS crisis a distant memory. It's been 40 years since the first cases were diagnosed in the U.S. Although significant progress has been made, one Boston ministry wants to ensure that those lost are not forgotten while also bringing attention to the resources needed to eradicate HIV/AIDS.

St. Anthony Shrine's presence on Arch Street, in Boston's Downtown Crossing neighborhood, spans more than 70 years. During the 1990s, this Franciscan Charism of the Roman Catholic Church made social services and community outreach an integral part of their ministry, from helping the homeless to establishing emergency food services and facilitating counseling and substance abuse treatment. Its LGBTQ+ ministry, led by Fr. Jay Woods, OFM, is one of several Catholic ministries to open its arms to queer parishioners and their loved ones.

"Many families are hurting because of how churches use language toward the LGBTQ+ community. Much of it is traumatic — both written and spoken," reflects Fr. Jay. "Many families are divided as their children come to know who they are and become authentic human beings. We are a place of welcoming, not only for LGBTQ+ people but also their families. We're trained to have those tough conversations and help people come to understand that God made us wonderfully and beautifully made as we are — there is nothing that needs to change. It's just our job to love them and their families."

Displaying a portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt this December is one of the recent ways in which St. Anthony Shrine is connecting with the LGBTQ+ community and allies. It's the first time the church has displayed a portion of the Quilt, which will now become an annual tradition to coincide with World AIDS Day (December 1).

A portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on display at St. Anthony Shrine.
A portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on display at St. Anthony Shrine.  (Source: St. Anthony Shrine)

"We are honored to work together with the National AIDS Memorial to bring the Quilt to our community and share its stories of hope, activism, healing and remembrance," said Fr. Jay. "The Quilt sections on display connect the story of AIDS directly to the work we do to provide services, educate, and raise greater awareness about HIV today. The Quilt offers an important reflection about the tremendous loss of life, allowing us to remember those we've lost, ensure their lives are never forgotten and provide hope for the future."

During the four-decade span since HIV was first identified in the U.S., more than 700,000 lives have been lost in this country to HIV/AIDS, with still no cure. Today, HIV is on the rise in communities of color and southern states. Quilt displays are used to raise greater awareness about the story of AIDS as well as prevention, treatments, and resources available within the community.

On December 1, St. Anthony Shrine held a mass to welcome the Quilt and lit candles to honor lost lives. After mass, two local families came forth to speak of their loved ones who died of AIDS, and Fr. Woods hopes they'll be part of a new committee to curate and welcome the Quilt each year.

"Everything we do is about creating community," said Fr. Jay. "These two families continue to show hope and love. It's also an opportunity to create continued awareness surrounding this epidemic. The stigma of HIV/AIDS is still out there, and we need to do everything we can to end it."

The Quilt has sustained a collective sense of humanity and empathy, rooted in the AIDS crisis but paralleling today's pandemic woes.

"The issues our nation has faced in the past two years — a raging pandemic with hundreds of thousands of lives lost, social injustice, health inequity, stigma, bigotry and fear — are also the issues faced throughout four decades of the AIDS pandemic," says John Cunningham, CEO of the National AIDS Memorial. "The Quilt is a powerful teaching tool that shares the story of HIV/AIDS, the lives lost, and the hope, healing, activism and remembrance that it inspires."

When asked about how he stays optimistic amid the barrage of daily headlines, Fr. Jay says, "One way to remain hopeful and positive is knowing that God is in the midst of death and sickness, and seeing people coming together. As a minister, people really do welcome us into the joys and sadness of their lives. Stories of how they've overcome such challenges through community continue to bring me great hope."

The Quilt panels will be on display at St. Anthony Shrine at 100 Arch Street Boston, MA, through December 14, 2021. The exhibition is free to the public.