Francis House, a ministry to people with HIV/AIDS in Camden, N.J., closed this month after St. Anthony of Padua Parish could no longer afford to keep the ministry open. The following reflection about the community’s final gathering, to mark the 19th anniversary of Francis House, was written by a Franciscan Volunteer Minister.
CAMDEN, N.J. — It’s hard to capture in mere words the love, hope, and companionship that Francis House offered.
When I first arrived in Camden last summer as part of the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry, we had a couple of weeks to explore our potential ministries in order to determine the ministry sites to which we felt called. I remember our first time visiting Francis House, when my two housemates and I traveled as a community to Bellmawr Lake, to join the Francis House family for a picnic.
It was late August, and the idea of going to any form of water was exciting. We lay on towels in the sun, chatting with various guests. Around noon, we gathered under a massive canopy to eat the largest hoagies I’ve ever seen, and then afterward, Momma Sue — as everyone at Francis House called director Sue Piliro — pointed us in the direction of the shack that made ice. I remember how comfortable everyone was in their own skin, and with one another. I also remember how happy everyone seemed, and how thankful they were to simply be together, and to be alive.
A Ministry of Hope
Last week’s 19th and final anniversary celebration was a perfect end to a ministry full of Christ’s love and hope. Fr. Chris Posch, OFM, one of the founders of Francis House, came from Wilmington, Del., to celebrate the opening prayer service, and he couldn’t have set a better tone for the day. In his enigmatic style of preaching, he had the whole church laughing, yelling “Amen,” and full of the Spirit, just like he was.
The message in Chris’s reflection was clear and fitting for the day. He said time and again that “Francis House is not ending, it is changing. It is transforming into something greater.” After the service, members of Francis House, along with their relatives, friends and other guests gathered at the ribbon outside St. Anthony Church commemorating those lost to HIV or AIDS. We offered the typical Francis House pre-lunch prayer, a specialized version of the “Serenity Prayer” with the doxology included. Then everyone gathered in Francis House for the final time for lunch, love, and kinship — the hallmarks of the ministry that lasted 19 years.
A Sacred Space
Before the post-lunch raffle, a guest shared his deep gratitude for Sue and her husband Ron, as well as all of their work that was instrumental in “getting his life back on track.” I was blessed to share how special Francis House was and always will be to me, and what I will take away from that sacred space. Although I saw many a teary eye, the overall feel of the day was joyous, and it was more of a festival than a funeral. As each guest left that space for the last time, people were telling each other, “It’s not goodbye, it’s see you later.”
For a ministry that saw its share of the good and the bad over 19 years, saved countless lives and brought so many people off the streets and into a safe, welcoming space, a festive ending was fitting. Beyond anything else, Francis House conquered the stigma of HIV for those countless guests who entered the door for nearly two decades. The work of Sue, her husband, and the ministry’s founders was instrumental in providing HIV-positive people with information, education, various medical or hygiene supplies, and the like.
In doing so, and reminding these people that they were loved, that someone cared for them, Francis House helped them to embrace and love themselves, and it reminded them that they were — in so many ways — greater than the virus that lived in their bodies. While it was sad to see Francis House close, Sue already is planning on continuing her ministry at another site in Camden. While nothing is definite yet, we can all take a page from Francis House’s book and hope that it will happen. We can all hope that 19 years — or more — of lunch, love and kinship will take place again.
— Andrew Staiti is a Franciscan Volunteer Minister serving at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Camden, N.J. An article about his love for Camden was published June 21 in the Philadelphia Inquirer.