New York News

Manhattan Parish Is Home for 580 New Names on AIDS Memorial

Father Kenneth Boller, pastor of The Church of St. Francis Xavier, presents the updated Catholic AIDS memorial
at his parish in Chelsea. The updated memorial is built around the statues of the “Three Boy Saints
of the Jesuits” — John Berchmans, Aloysius Gonzaga, and Stanisław Kostka. All three were
novices of the Society of Jesus who died before they could be ordained. (Photo: Bill Miller)

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.” 

One thought on “Manhattan Parish Is Home for 580 New Names on AIDS Memorial

  1. Wonderful article. I’m being AIDS advocate since the early 80s a few of us from the AIDS resource center AKA ARC had found almost impossible to get some of the religious communities to be responsive to those who are ill and dying during this first waves of this crisis back in the ’80s early ’90s.. St Vincent’s I’m familiar had guards and staff were so homophobic and we have to leave a few demonstrations to set the record we were not so called “lmmediate family but we were their Real family to those who were dying in the hospital.. when their families work abandoning them only to die alone in the well we demanded to speak to thee administrators the same Vincent back in the late and then St Vincent’s became but truly wonderful place when you were treated with respect when you came in the front the staff on the upper floors with more Caring for many of our friends and loved ones which will never forget.. Now no evidence of a hospital being there in West 12th Street and 7th Avenue. It turned into a horrible created by greedy developers and the Rubens who bought it out St Vincent’s for light 30 pieces of gold. Only to develop condos for the rich affluent and the privileged.. This was completely the opposite to what Saint Vincent’s was all about. One of the leading hospitals that took care of people who had no money. I wonder who profited I’m getting paid off by the Rubens developers? I miss St Vincent’s very much remember individual attendance and nurses remember their smiles and their concerns and their sadness when I love one of ours have passed. There should really be a memorial set right in front of these multi-million dollar condos..The Aids memorial does not do justice to what St Vincent’s had performed and created a safe place for our brothers and sisters who were slipping into their death. One of the most horrible experiences that contributors to destroy my life seeing them slip away before. I guess many of us were confused with the role the Cardinal O’Connor had many in our communities for him as an enemy.. Here in this article no hint at all about it so called coldness towards the gay community. Maybe that could be a misunderstanding I don’t know. They’re just too much anger, desperation and frustration going around during those early years. And we should never forget St Vincent’s. It should be a standard for all hospitals to follow. This healthcare systems impossible starving hospitals can do what they’re meant to do only play with this this healthcare lnsurance Mafia like companies. They are choking these hospitals why not reimbursing them for important life saving work. And these profit$$$$$$ driven stockholder obligated insurance companies. Who only think about the bottom line while paying multi-million dollar salaries to these CEOs. They are the real criminals denying payments for services provided by doctors and hospitals. Coping out by using the excuse that they are pre-existing conditions.. I had that done by predominant insurance company. I was attacked in a hate crime and denied reimbursements for this attack because of pre-existing conditions.. sorry for the sideboard but medical insurance companies are horrible we missed St Vincent’s hospital in Saint Veronica’s Church for being there during the most horrible Health crisis in our gay community. And it was said that Cardinal O’Connor good night having the organization dignity for gay Catholics from meeting at St Xavier’s Church. I think it was 19 87? I was there at the church on the last day that he was allowed to meet in the basement and have services in the sanctuary.. And said ending for many of us who wanted to have the church and the gay community work together. We forgive the late cardinal. I just hope the doors are open for our friends who are Roman Catholic gay brothers and sisters.. Wishing everyone have a Happy Christmas season and prayers for a better and sane New Year and the years to follow