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Correction to This Article
The Nov. 22 obituary of the Rev. Angelo D'Agostino omitted a surviving sister. She is Sister Sr. Savina D'Agostino of Providence, R.I.

Angelo D'Agostino; Priest Aided HIV-Positive Orphans

The Rev. Angelo D'Agostino, known as
The Rev. Angelo D'Agostino, known as "Faza" by Kenyan orphans, opened shelters for HIV-positive children left behind by parents who died from AIDS. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)

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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Rev. Angelo D'Agostino, 80, a physician, psychiatrist and Jesuit priest who opened one of the first orphanages for abandoned HIV-positive children in Kenya, died Nov. 20 of cardiac arrest at the Karen Hospital in Nairobi. He had been hospitalized for a week with abdominal pain from diverticulitis and died after surgery.

Father D'Agostino, who practiced and taught psychiatry in Washington during the 1970s and '80s, was called to a country with more than 1 million children whose parents have died of AIDS. Many of the children, often HIV-positive themselves, have been abandoned or left to roam through Kenya's big-city slums.

He encountered the needs of Kenya's children while serving on the board of governors for a large orphanage in 1991. When the orphanage began receiving scores of abandoned children who tested HIV-positive, Father D'Agostino suggested setting up a facility for them. The board opposed the idea, so in 1992, he founded the Nyumbani Orphanage, beginning with three HIV-positive children.

Today Nyumbani, or "home" in Swahili, shelters about 100 Kenyan children, from newborns to 23-year-olds.

The larger nonprofit organization, also called Nyumbani, includes Lea Toto (Swahili for "to raise the child"), a community-based program founded in 1998 to provide outreach services to HIV-positive children and their families in the Nairobi area. Nyumbani also has the most advanced blood diagnostic laboratory in Kenya.

At the time of his death, Father D'Agostino, an indefatigable fundraiser, had just returned from Rome and the United States, where he had solicited money for Nyumbani Village, a self-sustaining community to serve the orphans and elderly left behind by the "lost generation" of the AIDS pandemic. The goal of the village, which has plans for 100 houses, a school, a clinic and a community center, is to create new blended families for orphaned children under the care of elderly adults.

"It was difficult to say no to him, particularly because what he asked you to do were the kinds of things your conscience would bedevil you about if you said no," said Benjamin L. Palumbo, a Washington attorney who serves as president of Nyumbani's U.S. board of directors.

Father D'Agostino's friends and orphanage supporters ran the political gamut, from former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Leahy called him "a living saint."

Short and rotund, "Father D'Ag," as some knew him, was quick to laugh but also had a temper, his friend James Desmond recalled. Desmond, former owner of a downtown bar called Beowulf's, one of the priest's haunts when he lived in Washington, recalled being with him in a meeting with congressional aides who were giving him the polite brushoff. When the priest realized what was happening, Desmond had to hustle him out the door before his temper got the best of him.

In 2001, Nyumbani became the first place in Africa to import deeply discounted AIDS drugs under an Indian pharmaceutical company's program to make such drugs more affordable on the continent where most of the world's AIDS patients live and die.

"I am sick and tired of doing funerals," Father D'Agostino told The Washington Post, explaining why he was willing to defy national regulations and international patent rules to buy cheaper, generic AIDS drugs.

"It's really the darker side of capitalism, the greed that is being manifest by these drug companies holding sub-Saharan Africa hostage," he told The Post. "People are dying because they can't afford their prices."


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