Sr. Gianna: Welcoming AIDS patients and overcoming prejudices
By Gianna Raumer & Valentina Angelucci
The Home for AIDS patients was established on 5 December 1988, in Rome’s Parioli neighbourhood, inside Villa Glori Park. It was the first of its kind in Italy, and caused an uproar of demonstrations “opposed” to it, with heated debates in city assemblies and complaints to the Lazio Regional Administrative Court.
At a time when there were no well-defined treatments, sick people were marginalised as they were considered to be contaminated, and the impact of AIDS generated great fear and anguish.
The first young men also came from outside Rome (Roberto from Cardarelli Hospital in Naples, Ciro from Apulia), from the streets, or from hospitals in Rome where they had been inpatients for several months — one of them even for one year — because they had no one to pick them up when they were discharged.
I will never forget Sherry’s arrival, in an ambulance at 7:00 am, or that of Vincenzo, the wise homeless man, at 10:00 pm, in darkness to avoid the intrusiveness of journalists, the aggressiveness of photographers or the threat of tomatoes being thrown in his face by some “pariolino” (local bourgeois).
There was even a well-known politician who climbed over the fence. There were demonstrations and protests “in opposition” but also torchlight processions and prayer marches of solidarity!
The solidarity of nearby parishes — like the parish of Piazza Euclide and that of Saint Roberto Bellarmino — was moving, as was the solidarity shown by neighbouring schools that made their presence felt by sending letters; and by shops and restaurants that sent food; and by many unknown friends who gathered in a warm embrace, offering all kinds of help.
At the beginning, there was a large number of volunteers, from all social and religious backgrounds. We would plan formation meetings and outline the various tasks: cooking, assisting in hospital check-ups, visiting friends, organising outings and later, editing the newsletter “Dark Side”.
The celebrations held on that hill were unforgettable: religious feasts, birthdays, Carnival, spring and summer celebrations. There were always reasons to celebrate because life is beautiful and it was worth living intensely until the last moment.
Restoring contacts and hope
In time, the number of volunteers decreased, while those who were more motivated and better trained “in freely giving” stayed on. This was also because in the first few years, contact with death was very frequent (even reaching 10 patients per year). We took care of them until the end, taking turns. The suffering caused by separation was excruciating.
One of the key objectives of the Home was to restore contacts with their families, which had been broken and interrupted, in some cases for years, as a result of life choices deemed to be “transgressive”. In a large majority of cases, the relationship was mended, and the reconciliation fostered a peaceful life until death.
I remember in particular a guest who had resumed contact with his ex-wife and his four daughters and who experienced the joy of accompanying his youngest daughter to school at the start of the academic year.
Beginnings in the late ‘80s
The request to participate in managing the Home was made to our religious family by Msgr. Luigi Di Liegro (former director of Rome’s Diocesan Caritas), who had incidentally met one of our sisters who at the time accompanied novices once a week to the soup kitchen in Colle Oppio, Rome, which served meals to many poor people.
Three of us were chosen (I, who at the time was serving in Venice at the women’s prison in Giudecca, a sister who was a nurse from Tuscany and a third sister who was in Rome at the USMI (Union of Major Religious Superiors in Italy) for vocational pastoral work. Our small group was immediately joined by Junior sisters from the Pontifical Faculties.
Working with Msgr. Di Liegro was a great grace. He possessed many admirable traits — he was very humble and fraternal with us. Often, while sharing meals, he also shared his struggles and misunderstandings, and at the same time, he was so courageous and demanding with those in charge of public institutions when there was the need to defend the rights of the poorest and the most marginalised. He was a true man of God and a prophet of our times!
Renewing relationship with Christ
For my religious community, it was a concrete opportunity to put into action the charism that had been entrusted to our Saints Bartolomea Capitanio and Vincenza Gerosa, born in Lovere, Italy.
Every encounter, every new relationship was an important appointment with God, who revealed to us something of himself, of his plan for love, of his beauty, his dramatic suffering and tenderness.
From sharing daily life with the people we had welcomed, we learned that every moment is important and should be lived with intensity; that nothing is banal… every happy or sad event should be experienced to its core, in truth without disguises.
We “healthy” people, so accustomed to putting on an appearance, learned to mutually remove our disguises to return to the truth of being, of our lives.
The community of sisters slowly became an extended family whose circle included all those around us and those who lived with us: people with AIDS, nurses, caregivers (among them some detainees on parole), volunteers, friends of every age, social class, and religious or political affiliation. The complexity of the problems led us to think and work together, to engage in continuous debate, to share desires, doubts and hopes….
Looking after each other
We learned what it means to take care of one another, each day, every day until the last moment of life, through the simplest of everyday things: looking after the person, cleaning the house, cooking, ironing, caring for the body and caring for the wounded soul. Not just professionalism and skill, but above all, a profound and engaging emotional connection.
I have to thank all those who experienced this human adventure with me, especially Msgr. Luigi Di Liegro, a true brother and friend in the Lord, a courageous instrument in God’s hands who made this unforgettable experience of “a poor Church for the poor”, possible.
How happy would Pope Francis have been if he had been able to meet Don Luigi, and how much joy and comfort would Don Luigi have received from this Magisterium. Surely, he will be enjoying it all from Heaven in the enveloping light of the Father.