25th Anniversary of Ursuline Sisters HIV/AIDS Ministry

By Michele Ristich Gatts

When HIV/AIDS came on the radar of U.S. health officials in 1981, it wasn’t yet called that. In fact, health professionals weren’t sure what it was. One thing was clear, though: It was killing people fairly quickly.

Eventually, health workers globally settled on the name human immunodeficiency virus, which, when left untreated, led to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome — HIV/AIDS, for short.

Fear bordering on hysteria followed the virus. People were shunned and scorned (and sometimes are still today). Stories of the infected being refused treatment by medical professionals, being mistreated, stigmatized and isolated were common place. And that troubled four nuns in Ohio greatly.

Sisters Kathleen Minchin, Mary Lee Nalley, Nancy Dawson and Pauline Dalpe, HIV/AIDS Ministry founders.

Ursuline Sisters of Youngstown Pauline Dalpe, Nancy Dawson, Kathleen Minchin and Mary Lee Nalley were chatting on Christmas 1992. They posed to each other the question, “Where would Jesus be ministering today?”

“I had observed that folks with HIV/AIDS were horribly stigmatized, made the butt of unkind jokes and were treated disgracefully and distrustfully,” remembers Sister Kathleen. “Their basic humanity was dismissed.”

The other Sisters had similar experiences, and when they shared them that Christmas day, they agreed the answer was clear. The following April they founded the Ursuline Sisters HIV/AIDS Ministry.

“When we formalized the ministry, I became the first director,” says Sister Kathleen, who retired last year but still participates and attends ministry events. “We started out by asking those early folks what they needed. We are in the Mahoning Valley, we had different needs than people in San Francisco and New York. The ministry continued to expand in many different directions because unmet needs were recognized, and we tried to meet those needs.”

In the last 25 years, the ministry has adapted and grown as the AIDS epidemic has changed.

Initially, the Sisters’ ministry consisted of a prayer support group for those living with HIV/AIDS, their family and friends, and a group dubbed Nimble Needles, which created an AIDS quilt.

The Sisters were told by prayer group participants how difficult it was to buy many items – such as cleaning supplies and toiletries – necessary to daily life and dignity, and began collecting and distributing the products out of a pantry they called Angela’s Place.  From there, the ministry grew to include a monthly meal called Guardian Angel Café, which has just been renamed the Ursuline Sisters Café in honor of the 25th anniversary and the Ursulines who founded it. Food bags and other household items from the pantry are distributed at the meal.

Volunteer Alex with Children’s Program Director Linda Titus.

Clients attending the café often brought their children, says Brigid Kennedy, past ministry director and now president of Ursuline Ministries. She and the volunteers noticed the children, too, had many unmet needs, and so the children’s program was born. What began with pizza, homework and games in an empty room at the Ursuline Center has grown to offer academic, social and other guidance for preschool-12th grade students three days a week and in the summer at a site on the city’s south side called Casa Madre.

In 2001, the ministry opened the Comprehensive Care Center, a pediatric and adult HIV clinic, in answer to a call from local physicians after a small clinic at Tod Children’s Hospital closed.

“We were surprised at how great the need was and continues to be,” Kennedy reports. “The clinic grew from 19 patients from the Tod clinic to 95 in one year. We serve many adults and children who just don’t have the resources to travel to Cleveland or Pittsburgh for their care, and once we opened our doors, they flocked to us.”

One of the services the clinic offers is helping those infected acquire and stay on their medication.

“If you’re taking them as prescribed, you really can live almost as normal lifespan as someone who’s not HIV positive. It’s within five years. That’s the ultimate goal of HIV care,” says Dan Wakefield, director of the Ursuline Sisters HIV/AIDS Ministry.

The café, pantry, children’s program and clinic make a real difference in the lives of the clients, says Sister Kathleen.

“People begin taking better care of themselves after coming to the café and receiving food bags and a pantry bag,” she states. “They’re healthier after starting at the clinic, and it’s a real joy to see the children wanting to learn how to read and reading books and going to school on a regular basis.”

In late 2015, the ministry began offering housing as well. As Kennedy explains, “For many years, we watched our clients struggle with traditional housing options, and we decided we could try to address this need as well.”

The housing program provides permanent supportive housing, emergency shelter, housing case management and emergency assistance. “We try to see the face of God in every client,” Kennedy says. “That’s what makes it ministry. That’s what allows us to achieve the outcomes we do.”

Donors and volunteers, Wakefield notes, have been important to the development and expansion of services by the ministry. In fact, Wakefield himself became associated with the ministry many years ago while doing his field work in college, then as a volunteer.

“As a ministry, we are blessed to have such hardworking and committed volunteers who are willing to put forth so much time and effort each month to help serve those living with HIV,” he says.

Ministry programs, Wakefield notes, are supported by HIV-positive adults who are trained as Peer Navigators. These Peer Navigators help other clients keep appointments and take their meds, and also perform testing in the community and public speaking.

Through the work of staff and volunteers, the ministry helps hundreds of residents from Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties. Here are some stats:

  • 1,000+ meals are served annually at The Ursuline Sisters Café.
  • 2,000+ bags of groceries, household supplies and personal items are distributed annually through Angela’s Place.
  • 800 people receive HIV testing through the ministry’s outreach annually.
  • 330+ patients of all ages are treated annually through our Clinic.
  • Zero HIV-positive babies have been born to mothers under our care.
  • 69% of the people served by the clinic are considered at or below poverty level.
  • 100% of the children served by the ministry and adults in housing live below poverty level.

The ministry continues to adapt to answer the challenges presented by the virus, as Ursuline Sisters’ founder St. Angela Merici advised. The ministry is beginning outreach to young adults living with HIV/AIDS – a group that’s often hard to engage. It’s also offering more testing at drug recovery and detox centers, as well as a nearby university.

“We’re also beginning an initiative called Positive Voices,” Wakefield adds. “These brief video stories of people in our ministry will be anonymous — our staff and volunteers will voice the videos. Hopefully we will educate others as to the realities of living with the virus.”

While much about this illness is surrounded by sadness (an April 15 Mass to mark the 25th anniversary remembered the 197 clients who’ve died since it began), hope – and opportunities for happiness – are integral.

“Our Monthly café had a gala in May,” Wakefield states. “The event was catered so volunteers could enjoy it as well. We had fun things, such as a professional photographer doing family portraits and a photo booth, and giveaways.”

Current HIV/AIDS Ministry Director Dan Wakefield and former directors Sister Kathleen Minchin and Brigid Kennedy.

The ministry also will host a gathering in December at Youngstown State University to recognize supporters and donors, and debut a new video about its work. Many area individuals and companies are becoming sponsors of the event and the ministry. To learn how you can join them in supporting our ministry, contact Wakefield.

While the Ursuline Sisters HIV/AIDS Ministry is an important resource in northeast Ohio, and its 25th anniversary an important milestone, Fr. Frank Zanni made an important point when he celebrated that April 15 Mass: may there be no need for this ministry 25 years from now.