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Neighbors Are Fearful of Nuns' Caring For the Dying in Convent

By Sandra G. Boodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 12, 1987; Page B01

To the four Roman Catholic nuns who belong to Mother Teresa 's order in Northeast Washington, their mission is clear: to provide a "loving home" in their convent for dying AIDS patients who have nowhere else to go.

To some neighbors of the convent in Woodridge, a middle-class enclave near Catholic University, the sisters' calling is admirable but alarming. Some say they fear the presence of AIDS patients in their neighborhood and resent what they believe is an unregulated medical facility that was foisted upon them by the Archdiocese of Washington and the city government.

"There's nothing wrong with providing those services, but we are not assured that there might not be long-term hazards," said Joann Whitt, president of the Ward 5 Citizens Coalition, an ad hoc group formed to protest the home that claims a membership of 60 families. "I would like to know that what they're doing over there is perfectly safe, that there is a license and that they have to abide by the rules of other medical facilities."

Since the home, called "The Gift of Peace," opened Nov. 8, it has housed seven men, four of whom have died. The most recent death, of a man in his midforties who arrived at the home blind, mute and demented, took place New Year's morning.

Most patients arrive by ambulance from area hospitals or their homes in the final throes of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, the incurable virus that kills most victims within two years of diagnosis. Many are suffering from dementia, which doctors say is increasingly affecting AIDS victims. Most are bedridden and incontinent and require round-the-clock custodial care that friends or relatives are unable to provide.

"The Gift of Peace" is the nation's second facility for persons with AIDS operated by Mother Teresa , the Indian nun famous for her work with the poor of Calcutta. The first facility, called the "Gift of Love," opened in the rectory of a Greenwich Village church on Christmas Eve 1985 after a news conference that featured Mother Teresa , New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch and Cardinal John O'Connor. Its first residents were three prisoners with AIDS released from Ossining Correctional Facility on orders from Gov. Mario Cuomo.

The opening of the Washington convent, by contrast, was deliberately low-key. According to officials of the Washington archdiocese, Mother Teresa attended the dedication only after it was agreed that the press would be barred from the event.

"I don't know the reason," said John Carr, the archdiocesan secretary for social concerns. The nuns also have refused repeated requests by reporters to tour the facility and speak to residents.

"That is not the way we operate," said Sister Delores, who was dispatched from the New York convent to serve as superior of the Washington home. "We do not seek publicity."

Like the New York facility, the Washington residence is an austere place with strict rules and a religious atmosphere. The walls are adorned with color pictures of saints and the pope. There is a 5 p.m. curfew, and visitors are normally permitted only between 4 and 5:30 p.m. Radios are allowed, but television is not.

Not all residents, whom the nuns call "guests," are Catholic. Although a monsignor celebrates daily mass at the convent and prayer is encouraged, patients are not required to participate in religious ceremonies.

"This is not a place for people who want to entertain or have friends in," said Harold Burris, director of housing services for Washington's Whitman-Walker Clinic, which provides medical and social services to AIDS patients. "It's not for everyone, but it does serve a need. We certainly can't stack our hospitals with people who need care but for whom nothing more can be done medically. We're seeing more of these people, and there's a serious shortage of housing for them."

Residents of the home have included a 28-year-old man whose wife and young daughter visited regularly, a career Navy enlisted man, and a District government employe.

The archdiocese rejected a request by juvenile court officials in Virginia to place in the home a 14-year-old girl who contracted AIDS through sexual activity.

Much of the convent's work, which involves cooking for, bathing and feeding patients, is done by a staff of 50 volunteers who include government workers, housewives and seminarians.

"It is a privilege to do this kind of work, but it's also very stressful," said Frank Kraemer, a Capitol Hill real estate broker who coordinates the night staff. "Sometimes people find that they just can't take it," said Kraemer, who spends Tuesday and Thursday nights at the home.

Doctors from Georgetown University Medical Center screen all incoming residents and visit the home weekly. They say that no medical treatment is given at the convent.

"The sisters and volunteers provide the same kind of care you'd give a sick relative in your home," said Jack Morrison, director of Catholic Charities.

Some neighborhood residents contend that the implications of a private religious group administering care are different from those of a family tending to a relative. Some say they believe that the home should be closed until the District government agrees to monitor the facility, which they claim is a medical facility.

"They have circumvented the law by not calling this a hospice," said Joann Whitt. "Our concern is that if the District government does not monitor their activities and require that certain standards be maintained, then people are allowed to operate however they choose."

Others say they are angry that the archdiocese did not inform the neighborhood in advance of its plan to convert the sprawling red brick building that housed a day care center and the offices of Catholic Charities into a residence for 15 AIDS patients. Some say they first learned of the plan after it was announced at an Aug. 21 news conference.

"They would never have done that in Georgetown or Spring Valley," said Ruth Goodwin, a registered nurse who has lived across the street from the building for 26 years. The archdiocese has owned the building, which formerly housed a boys' orphanage, since 1926.

Despite repeated assurances that AIDS has been shown to be transmitted only through intimate sexual contact or through the exchange of blood, some neighbors remain fearful that the virus could be transmitted through the air.

Others disapprove of the fact that the home is caring for gay men. "AIDS comes because of immoral acts," said the Rev. William Whitt, one of 50 people who attended a Dec. 30 Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting called to discuss the home. "Why is it doing charity work to bring them in?"

Church officials say that they are not condoning homosexuality but are ministering to the dying, as the church teaches. "I'd love to do this in Georgetown, but we don't have a building in Georgetown," Morrison said. "We were kind of there first; it isn't like we're just moving into the neighborhood." Morrison said that some of the neighbors nearest the facility, which is on a 12-acre tract, were notified before the public announcement was made.

The day after the August announcement was made, more than 200 angry homeowners showed up at a community meeting to protest the plan. Some said they feared that it would lower property values, while others said they thought the presence of the home patients might endanger their children.

City officials have said that a public hearing was not required because no rezoning was needed. According to city officials, the property has a charitable use designation and is not considered a medical facility, and therefore it does not require a license.

"It is my understanding that the operation at the convent is a sort of shelter operation and that health care services are not provided there," said Frances Bowie, an administrator in the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. "If that's not the case, then we'll have to review the situation."

Some residents who were initially opposed to the presence of the home say they have changed their minds. "I won't say that I don't fear the disease, but I don't have any contact with those people," said Karen Benefield, a Woodridge resident since 1955 who lives a block from the convent. "I had no problem with it once I understood what it was."

© Copyright 1987 The Washington Post Company

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