CHELSEA — Since 1996, the Church of St. Francis Xavier has kept a memorial bearing 200 names of people who died of complications of AIDS — but in early December, it gained 580 more.
The parish, located on West 16th Street in Chelsea, redesigned its AIDS memorial to accept the additional name plaques that comprised a much larger memorial in the choir loft of St. Veronica’s Parish. That parish closed five years ago.
Father Kenneth Boller S.J., the pastor at St. Francis Xavier, explained that the Archdiocese of New York wanted a new home for St. Veronica’s memorial.
He volunteered his parish at the urging of members who knew some of the 580 names, many of whom were gay.
“Since we’re an active church, people can come and pray for their loved ones,” Father Boller said. “Each name represents a life lost, and friendships and relationships broken.”
The updated memorial’s unveiling was held on Dec. 9 during an observance of World AIDS Day. It unfolds beneath three youthful saints — statues that have been part of the church since it opened on Dec. 3, 1882. They are Aloysius Gonzaga (1568- 1591), John Berchmans (1599-1621), and Stanisław Kostka (1550-1568).
“These are Jesuit boy saints who died before they were ordained,” Father Boller said. “St. Aloysius is the patron saint of plague victims and their caregivers. His portfolio was extended to the people with AIDS.”
Father Boller is a native of Queens, baptized at St. Joan of Arc Parish in Jackson Heights and raised in Blessed Virgin Mary, Help of Christians Parish in Woodside.
He is proud to share some of the other recent additions to his historic church — 12 portraits of people of various ethnicities, either sainted or in the process of canonization, painted by artist Patricia Brintle of Whitestone.
St. Veronica’s memorial began in 1992 during the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Father Boller recounted how those earlier parishioners found themselves at “ground zero” of the epidemic in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan.
“Nowadays,” Father Boller said, “it’s unlikely you’ll perish from AIDS, because of medications, at least in this part of the world. But, in 1992, you were still very much at the peak of the crisis.
“So they memorialized a lot of people, and they kept adding to it.”
It was also a time of turmoil for the gay community.
“Certainly, in the 80s, Cardinal [John] O’Connor was very outspoken,” Father Boller said of the Archbishop of New York, who served from 1984 until he died in 2000.
But, he added, as the death rate accelerated, Mother Teresa of the Missionaries of Charity (now St. Teresa of Calcutta) wanted to create a hospice for AIDS patients in Manhattan. Cardinal O’Connor supported it. He also approved the forming of AIDS treatment units at St. Vincent’s and St. Clare’s hospitals.
“Those were Catholic hospitals in the West Side of Manhattan under his jurisdiction,” Father Boller said. “He was very compassionate and encouraging in the care for the sick and dying.”
Meanwhile, the Church of St. Francis Xavier, like St. Veronica’s parish, reached out to the LGBTQ community, according to John Weber, who coordinates the parish’s gay men’s group. There is a similar group for lesbians.
“For almost 40 years, I’ve been a parishioner,” said Weber, who lives in New Jersey. “There are a lot of people who drive an hour-and-a-half to two hours to come in every Sunday because we’re Xavier.”
Now that the death rate has fallen, Weber frets a widespread forgetting of the victims.
He noted that many adults today were not yet born in the 1980s and 1990s and did not learn the epidemic’s history.
“So it has gone to the wayside,” Weber said.
“We at Xavier use the term ‘marginalized’ quite often,” he added. “Jesus came to speak to the marginalized and to say, ‘You have a home with me.’ The Catholic Church should say the same thing.”
Father Boller agreed.
“We have a significant gay population,” he said of his parish. “But everybody wants to find their way to God. “Whether you’re straight or gay … I want to help deepen your faith. So we try to provide a home for that.”