The New Yorker
Talk of the Town
1988 Aug 29
By Katy Butler
Most Holy Redeemer Church and the Response to AIDS
A FRIEND FROM SAN FRANCISCO writes:
In 1539, when the Ottoman armies of Süleyman the Magnificent had conquered much of Hungary and seemed bent on encircling the Mediterranean, Pope Paul III issued the first known papal order recognizing the virtue of forty hours of unwearied prayer. “Out beloved son the Vicar General of the Archbishop of Milan at the prayer of the inhabitants of the said city, “ said the papal brief, “in order to appease the anger of God provoked by the offenses of Christians and in order to bring to nought the efforts and machinations of the Turks who are pressing forward to the destruction of Christendom, amongst other pious practices, has established a round of prayers and supplications to be offered, both by day and night, by all the faithful of Christ, before our Lord’s Most Sacred Body in all the churches. “ By 1731, the practice of Forty Hours’ Devotion in times of public peril was so widespread that Pope Clement XII issued precise instructions for it, specifying even that at least twenty candles were to burn while relays of people prayed before consecrated Communion bread.
Like other popular devotions, the Forty Hours fell out of use in the nine teen-sixties, after the second Vatican Council; it was revived four years ago by parishioners of the church of the Most Holy Redeemer in the Castro district here who are praying for an end to the AIDS epidemic. The church, a pink neoclassical building two blocks from the neighborhood’s busiest intersection, has roughly a hundred and twenty longtime members—widows and retired people who have been coming to it for decades—and almost six hundred new ones, who joined after its pastor, Tony McGuire, formed a Gay and Lesbian Outreach Committee six years ago. In those six years, funerals and memorial services hare quadrupled—there are at least ten a month now, mostly for young people—and last year the empty parish convent across the street was converted into a hospice, which is partly subsidized by a weekly bingo game in the church basement.
When I visited the church one recent Thursday, the day before the start of its fourth annual weekend of continuous prayer, a knot of men and women carrying candles, crucifixes, and small brass bowls were forming themselves into a rough processional crocodile on the church steps. “Get that oil up there, girl!” 1 heard a youngish man with a candle say, in a friendly way, to a tiny elderly woman wearing turquoise pants. She punched him in the arm and then obediently raised her bowl to chin level, and the procession marched into the church. I later learned that this was a rehearsal for a sacrament of anointing the sick.
At the front altar, a woman with a spiky haircut was tacking up a banner.
“The theme for this year’s Forty Hours is ‘Refresh Your People’“ they told me, “We’ve had four or five years of dealing with AIDS, and we’re getting tired, so I’m trying to get across a theme of refreshment, using images of water and wheat—food for the journey across the desert. We’re doing the back of the altar in teal, and I’ve made these teal banners, with wonderful symbolic thingies pasted on with Spra-ment.“ She stepped back from the banner, and a man carrying a candle studied it carefully. “Oh, it’s like wheat,” he said, after a pause. “It’s fabulous. Absolutely fabulous.”
The man carrying the candle, who introduced himself as Thomas Michael, not giving his last name, said, “I’m in charge of ushers for the weekend, and my lover, John, is putting out coffee and cookies to keep people going all night. “ He was wearing a boldly striped shin and low-slung black Levi’s, and he had a handlebar mustache like an Irish fireman’s. “I joined the church four years ago, at the invitation of a friend who’s dead now,” he went on. “I hadn’t been in church for twenty years—since my early twenties, when I confessed that I was living with a man, and a priest threatened me with blanket excommunication. So I withdrew, and I was gaaay. Now I’m back. Both John and I will be taking a shift to pray in the church at night this weekend, and on Saturday we’ll be anointed. Six months ago, John got shingles. I started drinking heavily, because I didn’t want to know, and then one morning I woke up with a hangover and said, ‘Let’s quit running away and have the test and fight the S. O. B. down to hell.’ I don’t care what anyone says, nothing prepares you for the moment when the doctor tells you, ‘I’m sorry. You’re HIV-positive.’ I know that unless something comes up we’re going to die—if not from AIDS, from some complication.”
As we watched a man in a small cherry picker, trailing a banner of teal, rise hydraulically to the ceiling, Thomas Michael added, “This is the place where I’ve let a lot of people go.”
I asked him how many of his friends had died, and he said, “They go in groups, like the rings of a redwood tree. The inner ring, of my closest friends and the people I’ve had sexual relations with—fifty. Then people I’ve invited to parties and seen at barbecues—a hundred and fifty. The outer ring, of people I’ve known from the bar scene and the bathhouses, people I’ve met on the AIDS ward at the county hospital, where my hair salon serves dinner every other week— maybe three hundred. The church offers me a formidable structure to seep into. Marie Krystofiak”—he nodded toward the tiny woman holding the oil, who was now at the front altar— “helped me make three hundred Christmas baskets last year for people with AIDS. And if you’re in really deep grief there’s always someone like Marie, who will come and sit next to you. Marie’s not ray mother—my mother is dead—but she’s like my second mother.”
When I joined the crowd on the steps of the church Friday evening for the memorial service opening the Devotion, Thomas Michael, wearing a badge that read “Forty Hours Committee—Usher, “ was handing out white helium balloons. “I’m hyperventilating already,” he said as he gave me mine. The crowd spilled off the sidewalk into the street; it was windy, and our balloons, each symbolizing someone who died last year, kept bumping against one another. At seven-twenty-three, recorded church bells tolled, and the young woman with the spiky haircut began reading a list of a hundred and seventy friends of the parish who died last year. Father McGuire shook holy water over the balloons—it landed with a single thwack—and, on a signal, we all released them. Then we went in out of the wind for a memorial Mass.
“I am burned out. I’ve been here since 5 a. m.,” Thomas Michael whispered when I returned on Saturday morning, fourteen hours into the vigil. Only a few people—mostly young men and elderly ladies—had stationed themselves in the pews. Votive candles, sputtering and clicking like tiny castanets, were going out one by one. A man in a jacket reading “Harley-Davidson—Born in the USA” stopped in briefly, setting a boombox down in the aisle while he genuflected. Not long before noon—sixteen hours into the Devotion—the church filled, the organ sounded, the choir began to sing, and Thomas Michael and John, a serious-looking man with aviator glasses, entered, carrying candles, at the head of the procession. One man held aloft a Bible covered in teal doth. A saturnine priest with deep-set dark eyes—Father Richard Sotelo—asked “those who are seriously ill” to come forward for anointing, and Thomas Michael and John joined a cluster of people moving up the aisle. The anointing was a group effort: as Father Sotelo anointed each forehead, a score of hands shot inward like the tentacles of a large sea anemone, stroking the supplicant’s back. When Father Sotelo smoothed a cross of oil on Thomas Michael’s forehead and said, “With this holy anointing may the Lord help you, Tommy, with the grace of His holy spirit,” I reached out my hand, too.
The devotion ended officially at eleven-thirty on Sunday morning, with a grand, crowded Mass led by Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco, but it didn’t really stop until after brunch in the bingo hall. Marie Krystofiak, wearing a blue dress with white cuffs, sat on a folding chair near Thomas Michael and lit a cigarette. “When this is over, I’m going to visit my grandchildren in Nevada,” she said. “I’m just beat. I went home last night, took a bath, and fell asleep in the middle of the Act of Contrition. It’s catching up with me. More than fifty boys I knew died last year, and a lot more are going. It’s not that I’m depressed, but it gets to your heart. You can’t stop thinking about the ones who are gone. You think, where will this end? Every day, I go to the statue of the Blessed Mother and I say, ‘Please, Mary, talk to your Son!’” Thomas Michael got up to give her a ride home. “A rock formed this weekend, something to stand on, a sense that there are people who care for me, so I can keep going,” he said. “It’s not like going bare-chested into the Crusades. It’s more like: Get it together, Myrtle, take that shower, put one foot in front of the other, and walk out the door.”
©1988 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.