EDITOR’S NOTE: In recognition of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, this is the first of a two-part series on Southern Tier Catholics who have devoted themselves to AIDS ministry and awareness.
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HAMMONDSPORT — She had lived in the Rochester area her whole life. In 1996, with her 50th birthday looming and many years as a teacher, restaurateur and pastoral associate behind her, Maureen O’Neill began a new chapter by heading south.
Yet the setting she sought was not exactly exotic: It was in New York City, ministering to those with AIDS.
"It was a lot of prayer, trying to listen to where the spirit was calling me," O’Neill said. "I loved it once I got down there."
O’Neill, 59, was coordinator of pastoral care and chaplain at Rivington House, the largest health-care facility in the United States for people living with AIDS. She spent 10 years in that role until returning upstate this past summer as the new pastoral administrator of St. Gabriel Parish.
Rivington House is a 219-bed long-term-care nursing home. O’Neill noted that the roll call of AIDS patients included "gay men, prostitutes, drug dealers, people infected by their spouses." She added that lawyers, doctors and nurses were treated alongside street people.
"AIDS doesn’t respect any kind of boundary," she remarked.
She contended that AIDS is a big issue in the Diocese of Rochester as well, saying that folks who think otherwise are in denial and/or don’t know anybody who’s been directly affected.
"The attitude about AIDS is that it’s only in the big city. … I am amazed at how many people think it has gone away," she said.
O’Neill ministered at Rivington House, a nondenominational facility, with Redemptorist Father Arthur Wendel, who had served at Canandaigua’s Notre Dame Retreat House from 1993-96. Her previous ministry experience was as pastoral associate at Holy Ghost Parish in Gates from 1991-96, following her graduation from St. Bernard’s Institute.
Due to a back injury suffered years earlier, O’Neill went around Rivington House by scooter; she continues using a scooter to this day. This allowed her to meet with many bedridden patients eye-to-eye. O’Neill, a Redemptorist lay missionary, said the order was formed to serve the most abandoned, and that its founder St. Alphonsus "taught us that God is crazy out of his mind in love with us." But it wasn’t easy to drive that message home to people with AIDS.
"Many people thought it was a punishment from God," O’Neill said.
She lamented that some religious groups left anonymous literature at Rivington House warning people to repent "because they were going to hell anyway." She recalled one patient who was convinced he was guilty, but never said what he felt he was guilty of. Many other patients had distanced themselves from family and friends, or been rejected by them.
Though she didn’t convince all patients of God’s love for them, she did get through to many.
"They wouldn’t believe me on the first try. But they were there long-term and saw me six days a week," she said.
O’Neill said she never inquired as to how anyone contracted the disease — "That would be like asking me ‘how did you murder your mother-in-law?’" she said — yet many patients shared their stories just the same.
"The biggest part of my job was listening," she said.
She was struck by the selfless intentions offered by patients during the Communion services that she led.
"They would always pray for one another," she said. "Some people’s faith just blew me away. They had more faith than I could possibly have in my entire lifetime, and they would pull me up on days I was down."
According to O’Neill, Rivington House’s patient ratio is 3-to-1 male-to-female, with a median age of around 40. When the house opened in 1995 the average life expectancy for a resident was a mere 16 days. But thanks to improvements over the past decade in AIDS-related technology, medication and nutrition, "70 percent of the population went home. Many found careers and went to work," O’Neill said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that from 2000 to 2004, the estimated number of people in the U.S. living with AIDS increased from 320,000 to 415,000.
AIDS stems from the HIV virus and develops when the body’s immune system weakens to the point that it can’t fight off infection. To date AIDS, which was first detected in the 1980s, has no known cure. It is most commonly transmitted through sexual contact (usually between homosexual men) with an HIV-positive person; by sharing a needle or syringe with somebody who is HIV-infected; or by mother-to-infant transmission during pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding.
O’Neill never had any fear of becoming HIV-infected, although she did have to be careful around open wounds due to their potential for transmitting the virus. A bigger concern, she said, was passing a disease on to patients.
"For people with a compromised immune system, that could be a death sentence," she explained. "I probably washed my hands 40 times a day. If I had a cold, I couldn’t go in there."
Though she never wearied of AIDS ministry, O’Neill became disenchanted with New York City following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Serving as a volunteer chaplain for victims, their families and emergency personnel, she witnessed considerable pain and shock — "I really got very depressed at Ground Zero," she said — and it took her two years to move past those memories. After 9/11, she said, living in New York meant "there was always the fear that something was going to happen."
Thus, O’Neill entered the Diocese of Rochester’s pastoral-administrator pool.
"When I saw (St. Gabriel’s position) come up, I knew it was the one I wanted," she said.
O’Neill replaces Sister Anne Michelle McGill, SSJ. Sister McGill served in Hammondsport for 12 years and was the first pastoral administrator in diocesan history. Though O’Neill’s ministerial setting changed, "pastoral care is pastoral care," she said. "Problems are different, but people are people."
One difference for which O’Neill is immensely grateful is the peaceful atmosphere on the southern tip of Keuka Lake in Steuben County. O’Neill said she has enjoyed such small-town sounds as birds chirping at 4:30 a.m. during the summer, a curfew siren that goes off at 10 p.m. nightly and the clip-clop of a horse pulling along a Mennonite farmer.
"I am just so happy," she exclaimed.