One of my favorite passages in Chicago journalist Michael J. O’Loughlin’s new book, Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear, opens like an old-school joke. A nun named Sister Carol Baltosiewich is sitting in a New York City gay bar and eyeing the men around her, when she learns some are gallivanting off to a bathhouse.
It’s a humorous paradox that O’Loughlin himself acknowledges with a laugh, but is just one of the fascinating stories he publishes in Hidden Mercy, his first book. The story of the very real Sister Carol’s visit to that gay bar doesn’t end in a punch line—it sets the tone for more stories from her and others of all-too-rare compassion, particularly in the face of great personal risk.
Amid a backdrop of the Catholic Church’s crackdown on LGBTQ+ issues—from opposing civil rights bills, filing suits to overturn unemployment protections, and exiling LGBTQ+ priests and parishioners—the people at the heart of O’Loughlin’s book challenged one of the world’s most influential institutions to help people dying of AIDS. At the same time, they challenged engrained ideas about who is welcome in the Catholic Church, and what it means to minister to those in need.
“I came across a number of individuals who approached it in different ways,” O’Loughlin tells the Reader. “Some people completely left because they thought it was not a healthy space for them. Others sort of stepped in and out of the religious space over the course of their lives. And some people said, “No, we’re gonna stay and fight when we need to, and ignore all the crap when we don’t feel like listening to it.’”
Professionally, O’Loughlin has made a career out of chronicling the tensions between the Catholic Church and the LGBTQ+ community. He is currently a national correspondent for America Media, and previously covered U.S. Catholicism for the Boston Globe. He also hosts the podcast, Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church. His book builds off that body of work, and the extraordinary amount of research is evident. Along with extensive archives O’Loughlin pored over for this book, he says he also had to contend with the challenges of finding people from the 1980s still living with the virus, but soon tapped into an unknown network of sources.
“A lot of the people I interviewed said they hadn’t talked about these stories in decades, that people seem to have moved on from the AIDS crisis as it became sort of a condition you can live with,” he says.
Locally, O’Loughlin writes about Father Jim Noone, a Catholic priest who worked with children at the now mostly-demolished Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago — named in part after Mother Frances Cabrini, the first U.S citizen to be canonized by the Catholic Church. He led a small congregation, focused much of his ministry on those living with HIV, and was at one time the leader of the Association of Chicago Priests.
Father Jim, as he’s called in the book, was also just one of a number of priests that died of complications related to AIDS. O’Loughlin writes that Father Jim succumbed to the virus in January 1991, years into an open crisis among priests dying of the virus.
Another priest that O’Loughlin writes about, Father Michael Peterson, shared his own secret fight with the disease in a letter to every bishop in the country. Father Mike’s 1987 funeral illustrated the church’s often conflicting public and private stances on how to interact with people living with HIV.
Punctuating the stories of tragic losses and the church’s private hand-wringing over public pressure and a silent HIV epidemic of its own are people like Sister Carol and Sister Mary Ellen, Father William Hart McNichols, and Michael Harank: people called to minister and help care for those rejected by families, neighbors, and the government. They opened homes to care for AIDS patients, cradled men as they wept over their lovers, and tried to find meaning behind protests that other church leaders condemned. In their own ways, they helped.
But O’Loughlin himself is a character in his book as well, and he weaves the histories alongside his own story of reconciling his Catholic faith and sexuality. He writes personally about the cognitive dissonance his sometimes dueling identities cause, and even his own considerations of leaving the faith. But like many of the figures central to his writing, he stays and pushes for a more inclusive Catholic Church.
Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear by Michael J. O’Loughlin
Hardcover published by Broadleaf Books, $28.99 at bookstores.
Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church
Available to listen to at Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Spotify, americamagazine.org/plague.
In Hidden Mercy, O’Loughlin also adds crucial context to stories already in the queer canon that fills in part of our history, and offers more complete versions of some of our greatest moments.
Of the infamous December 1989 ACT UP protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Sean Strub acts as a central subject, illustrating the very personal anger that burned inside many of the activists. Strub, a long-term survivor of HIV himself, now leads The Sero Project, an organization that aims to overturn laws that criminalize the exposure of HIV across the country.
But during the infamous St. Patrick’s protest, Strub was a member of ACT UP who was just one of a number of the activist group’s membership who were either raised or practicing Catholics. ACT UP’s anger toward the Catholic Church in particular has long been seen as an external force, but O’Loughlin’s writing shows that for some, a personal love for the church was indeed mixed with that righteous anger.
The book also brings to the fore a man now known to many as a leader in the fight against COVID-19, but one who cut his teeth fighting HIV/AIDS: Dr. Anthony Fauci.
O’Loughlin again broadens the mythos around Fauci to touch on how his devout Catholic upbringing brought him to the position as the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1984 and one of the foremost medical professionals fighting against a disease that the leaders in his faith would happily see eradicate the gay men it largely afflicted.
“When you’re dealing with a disease, the people who are suffering most from the community, you’ve got to listen to what it is that they have to say about their experiences,” Fauci told O’Loughlin for the book. In the book, Fauci speaks plainly about his shock and anger at the church’s actions during the crisis.
Stories of the AIDS crisis are almost exclusively of the tragic sort, and for obvious reasons. As O’Loughlin writes, over a 15-year period, a number greater than the population of Pittsburgh had died of the virus. People dying of the virus were left to die by friends, separated from lovers by hospital red tape, and ignored for years by a government that saw no issue in their extermination.
But alongside these stories, O’Loughlin manages to provide some semblance of hope that the past was not as dark as we may have thought. He tells the Reader that the book isn’t an effort to revise the history of the church, but to paint a picture of its individual membership that is more complete.
“I hope I was able to set context that a lot of church leaders were contributing to the overall societal stigma against both people with HIV and the LGBT community in the 1980s,” O’Loughlin says. “But these people I find compelling, and it’s because they were willing to do good work, in spite of that, knowing that it would put them and their vocations at risk.”
To bring his subject into the modern era, O’Loughlin notes progressive comments by Pope Francis to illustrate progress and a continued tension in the church. In a recent New York Times op-ed, O’Loughlin continues that and writes about a letter he sent to Pope Francis about the book, and the reply blessing his subjects’ work that he never expected to receive.
“I’m not under any illusions that a letter, even one signed by the pope, will heal the wounds some Catholics imparted decades ago. Or that this might finally be the moment when Francis changes church teaching on homosexuality,” O’Loughlin writes, adding later that “Christians are called to have hope, and so for now, I still do.”
As O’Loughlin writes in the early pages of the book, queer history isn’t passed on in traditional ways. We learn about our history not around the dinner table, but from our surviving elders, from lovers, friends, activists, and people on the front lines of our liberation. Each new story helps complete us, adding to our collective memory and healing us from so many efforts to erase us. So what a true gift it is to have received this compassionate history from O’Loughlin.