Francis House AIDS ministry spirit lives on

Francis House AIDS ministry spirit lives on
Francis House, which began 19 years ago as a ministry to individuals with HIV/AIDS, has closed its doors. Photo by James A. McBride

Francis House, which began 19 years ago as a ministry to individuals with HIV/AIDS, has closed its doors.
Photo by James A. McBride

After 19 years, the building that offered a refuge of fellowship for those living with HIV or AIDS shut its doors last week. But those who came to love Francis House in that time say that the community that grew up around the ministry lives on.

“We’re a close family,” said Susan Piliro, a member of the Secular Franciscan Order. Known as “Mama Sue” to friends of Francis House, she’s been the driving force behind the ministry for the last 19 years and is one of its original founders. “This is just a building. It’s not Francis House. We are Francis House.”

Francis House was born at a time when an HIV diagnosis meant social stigmatization and an almost certain death. Since its founding in 1996, Piliro, who lost two brothers to AIDS in 1993, has seen 100 of her friends’ names added to the memorial in the nearby church.

Today the disease is still isolating, but for the first time in its history, there have been no deaths at Francis House this year.

“The ministry has changed and the need has changed,” said Father Hugh Macsherry, OFM, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua, the Cramer Hill parish that supported the ministry. “People are generous when it comes to a crisis, but when it comes to quality of life, helping people feel that their lives are meaningful — that’s harder to fund. We’re sorry that we can’t continue to support it.”

Francis House started as lunch served once a week in the basement of St. Anthony’s. It expanded into the parish’s next-door former convent. At its peak it served 4,000 meals a year with 50-60 people coming through each day, three days a week.

The building’s purpose evolved over the years, too, into a community center and memorial in the center of a troubled neighborhood.

Three days a week, Francis House opened early for anyone who needed a place to go. The front and back yard had gardens, images of St. Francis and benches. There was a chapel for prayer and activities, from card games to arts and crafts to Bible Study, for fellowship.

The main event of a day at Francis House was lunch. Everyone gathered in a circle, holding hands, to pray and sing together before beginning the homemade meal.

Katherine Laadt lost her son to HIV in 1990. She found Francis House and began volunteering about five years ago. A trained masseuse, she gave massages to those who come for the day.

“It’s a place of family, it’s a place of joy and excitement, of love,” Laadt said. “If you’re trying to aspire to be like Francis and be the best person you can be, this is the place that teaches you, that inspires you to do that.”

When the secular and religious Franciscans who founded Francis House in the 1990s were looking for a ministry, they looked to their patron.

“Francis when he started his ministry reached out to the lepers of society, the outcasts of society, those who were considered dead to society,” Father Macsherry said. “Francis House embraced modern-day lepers: people with AIDS 19 years ago.”

Gene Lipscomb has been living with HIV for over two decades and has been coming to Francis House for the last 10 years or so.

“When you come to Francis House you meet a variety of people with the same problem. It lets you know that you’re not alone. It’s a refuge, a place where I can get away from home and be peaceful for a few hours,” Lipscomb said.

Piliro recalls the very first years of Francis House when a rickety van would bring people to the lunch and fellowship gathering. During her 19 years, she’s made house calls, visited nursing homes, planned funerals for those whose families had disowned their relative with the virus. She expects the community to keep up with one another, and would like to see weekly gatherings continue in some form.

“All of my people have my cell phone number,” she says. “They know they can call me anywhere.”

“Francis House is more than a place,” said Father Chris Posch, OFM. One of Francis House’s founders, he was stationed at St. Anthony’s in the 1990s before being moved to the Diocese of Wilmington. “Francis House is a community; it’s love, it’s a support, it’s unconditional acceptance.”

Father Posch led the service last week during Francis House’s closing day. Nearly 60 of Piliro’s “people” gathered to share in the service and a last lunch together. Two of those people stood to say a few words.

“Thank you for accepting us as we are and were when no one else does or would,” one man read from a card addressed to Piliro.

Andrew Staiti, a Franciscan Volunteer Minister stationed at St. Anthony of Padua for the last 10 months, volunteered at Francis House during his time in Camden.

“While my journey here has been one full of joy and blessings and love, I cannot say it has been easy. On those hard days in particular, my saving grace, my port in the storm, was Francis House,” Staiti said. “When I go home … I will share the fact that God’s love is alive and well in Camden and there are people who share it every day. Francis House is just one example of this.”

In the middle of the crowded lunch hall, one man watches the laughter contentedly, holds out a friendly hand and introduces himself.

“Twenty four years ago I found out I had AIDS. I didn’t know at that time that I would be part of a group of people that are so amazingly awesome,” Tom Eeps says over the noise.

“I can look at HIV as a blessing, because if I had never contracted HIV I would have never met these people.”

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