By Stanley Wlodyka Jiménez
Hello WestView readers! Local papers have long been charged with championing community first and foremost. As one of the last few, truly independent local newspapers in the country, WestView News is proud to back this effort to preserve the first AIDS memorial in NYC and the only one in a church anywhere in the world. Please consider becoming a Caretaker of the Village AIDS Memorial by signing this open letter addressed to Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Supreme Council of Apostolic Signatura, the highest judicial authority in the Vatican, is currently hearing the case of whether or not to reopen the Church of Saint Veronica, an essential part of the West Village community for the past 130 years. This case was brought before them by former parishioners of Saint Veronica’s who have had generations of baptisms, marriages and funerals performed at this historic Christopher Street church. The only person who can influence or overturn a Signatura ruling is Pope Francis himself.
If the letter published in these pages can attract 100 thousand online signatures, one for every life lost to AIDS in New York City, we believe that will be enough to open hearts to the truth that this memorial- and what it stands for- is not only wanted, but needed now more than ever before, especially when considering the parallels the COVID Pandemic has had with the AIDS Epidemic. To be clear, there has yet to be a cure for HIV and over 700 thousand people continue to die from it, with another 1.7 million new infections globally each year. The HIV drug market is estimated to be a $30.5 billion industry, and is expected to continue growing.
To virtually sign the open letter online, and to check out our star-studded #SayTheirNames Social Media Campaign which has attracted support from the likes of Dame Emma Thompson, Nathan Lane, Karamo Brown, and many more generous souls, please visit: www.VillageAIDSMemorial.org
Dear Pope Francis,
We respectfully ask you to preserve at its current location and make open to public visitation the Village AIDS Memorial, the first AIDS memorial in New York City and the only one in a religious building anywhere in the world.
This memorial, made up of 580 plaques honoring AIDS victims, is installed in the sanctuary of the Church of Saint Veronica. In 2017, the Archdiocese of New York closed the Church of Saint Veronica and has since made plans to remove this memorial.
The Village AIDS Memorial is miraculous because it brings worlds together that otherwise are seemingly incompatible, as evidenced by the fact that both Saint Mother Teresa and the “Patron Saint” of the LGBTQ Community Marsha P. Johnson were instrumental in birthing this memorial. Winner of the Noble Peace Prize, Saint Mother Teresa left Calcutta for Christopher Street so that she could open New York City’s first AIDS hospice in the rectory of Saint Veronica’s on Christmas Eve 1985. The church she chose was at the heart of the gay community in New York City: in fact, Christopher Street is arguably the worldwide LGBTQ community’s Main Street. To put a finer point to it, the church sits just a stone’s throw away from the Stonewall Inn, where the Gay Liberation Movement began a half century ago.
Marsha P. Johnson, the legendary veteran of the Stonewall Riots, publicly expressed her support for this unique phenomenon at the AIDS memorial service at St. Veronica’s almost a year to the day before her body was found floating in the Hudson River just two blocks away. Despite evidence of a “massive head wound,” police ruled her death a suicide, in an eerie foreshadowing of the current state of affairs. Thirty years later, this type of mysterious and violent end still haunts Black transgender women, 44% of whom are living with HIV according to the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC).
Herself HIV positive, Marsha was widely regarded by those who knew her as a “holy person,” with the support of eyewitness accounts finding her on several occasions lying prostrate on the floor of Catholic Churches around six in the morning and facing away from the altar because she felt it would be inappropriate to look directly upon, what she believed, was the holy habitation of the Lord. In her last years of life, she would confess with her mouth that she was “married to Jesus”, a sign of holiness ascribed to the earliest Christian martyrs; and months before her violent, watery death in the Hudson River, she was recorded in a video stating a desire to journey “across the River Jordan, helping AIDS patients all across America.”
In 1985, AIDS was understood to be a “gay disease”, and while it seemed the rest of the world would shun this community, Saint Mother Teresa wanted to send a different message, one characterized by compassion—a trait she shares with Saint Veronica. Indeed, it was a message that perhaps only a saint could deliver, especially when considering that only four years later, tensions between the Church and the LGBTQ community would boil over with a protest at New York City’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on December 10, 1989, that saw a man standing on a pew during Sunday mass repeatedly screaming, “Stop killing us!” That protest, organized by AIDS rights organization ACT UP, ended with the arrests of 111 people.
When Jesus handed Veronica back her veil, his face was miraculously imprinted upon it, and when Saint Mother Teresa accomplished her mission at the Church of Saint of Veronica, her own face was likewise miraculously imprinted upon that church in the form of the 580 plaques that constitute the Village AIDS Memorial. This memorial, created in 1992, is a direct descendent of Saint Mother Teresa’s (perhaps) divinely inspired work because many of these plaques remember those who died whilst in the care of the Gift of Love, the AIDS hospice which Saint Mother Teresa named herself.
Though most of the 580 plaques in the sanctuary of this Roman Catholic Church honor gay men who led private lives and who died from a virus they contracted while having gay sex (a revolutionary act which is reminiscent of the radical love some say is a central tenet to the life of Jesus), there are several famous names on this memorial who were the martyrs of the AIDS epidemic, including Ryan White, Marlon Riggs, Elizabeth Glaser, Randy Shilts, Peter Allen, Jeffrey Schmalz, Michael Callen, Tom Waddell and more.
However, if it should be saved for anyone’s sake in particular, it ought to be saved for Lisa Carrascosa, the five-year old Bronx girl whose plaque is joined by those of her parents. If, for no other reason, do not let that they disturb little Lisa’s home, for it seems she’s finally found some rest. Who knows what happened to her, but worse than the tragedy of little Lisa’s death would be if it were all for nothing. Please use this opportunity to remember, rather than forget.
Remember, for example, that other parishes rejected the opportunity to provide a church home for St. Mother Teresa’s worthy mission. The New York Times reported that a year earlier, in 1984, Upper West Siders made the Orwellian decision to protest a proposed AIDS hospice in their neighborhood. Perhaps the sight of plague-stricken bodies was too much too bear. Nevertheless, if even a single plaque is removed from this Christopher Street church, which has been a refuge for the most vulnerable in times of trials and tribulations, it would be sacrilegious and certainly will diminish this memorial’s holy power.
Please, Pope Francis, remember the way of Saint Veronica, and of Saint Mother Teresa, whom you yourself canonized, and do what you can to preserve the Village AIDS Memorial.
Caretakers of the Village AIDS Memorial