By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published November 23, 2006
Irene Miranda is passionate in her belief that Catholics are called to serve those with HIV/AIDS.
And the simplest and perhaps most effective way to serve them, the director of the archdiocesan Office of HIV/AIDS ministry believes, is to pray for them.
This year, the Archdiocese of Atlanta’s HIV/AIDS ministry will sponsor several events marking the 25th year of AIDS. The events, including Masses, prayer services and educational programs, will make up the “Archdiocesan Prayer Journey for a World Living with AIDS.”
Miranda has worked in AIDS ministry for the past 20 years, including three as director of the Atlanta office.
“Back then, most people associated AIDS with gay white men. But now we’re finding it’s mostly women and it’s women of color,” she said. “This is like the second wave of the pandemic. It’s affecting a new community and that brings up new challenges.”
AIDS ministry has been a part of the archdiocese now for 20 years. In the archdiocese this ministry started in the early 1980s, when some pastors, such as Father Alan Dillman, Father John Adamski, now pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta, Msgr. Henry Gracz, now pastor of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and Father T.J. Meehan, now pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Atlanta, began to pay attention to and to care for parishioners who were diagnosed with the disease. In the mid-1990s, Father Meehan established the HIV/AIDS Task Force. He was succeeded by Sister Nora Ryan, OP, who became AIDS ministry coordinator for the archdiocese. Miranda took charge of the ministry after Sister Ryan’s retirement in 2003. And in 2005, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory elevated the ministry to an official office of the archdiocese.
“Archbishop Gregory has been very supportive of the ministry,” Miranda said.
Miranda serves on several national Catholic AIDS boards, including the U.S. bishop’s HIV Task Force.
“In Atlanta, we have the most active AIDS ministry in the country, and Archbishop Gregory serves as an example to other bishops,” she said.
Early pioneers like Sharon Collins of the Church of St. Ann in Marietta recall the first years of the ministry.
“We fell into it very quickly,” she said. Father Gene Barrette, MS, then a parochial vicar at St. Ann’s, asked parishioners to begin a ministry. “Early on we were approached by a family who all had full-blown AIDS. In a way that made us get our act together.”
When St. Ann’s first began the ministry in 1990, they helped people from around the city. But as the need grew, they focused their resources on helping those in Cobb County. The ministry maintains a hotline that receives as many as 10 or more calls a week from men and women with HIV asking for assistance.
“Almost a majority of the people who contact us are women. And in most cases, they are women with children,” Collins said. “People are sometimes don’t think it’s an issue. They’ll say ‘it’s not here in Cobb County.’ I think there are still people who don’t have a clue how widespread it is.”
“I think it would be a myth to think there is a parish in this entire country where there is not at least one person who is infected or affected by HIV,” she said. “I think if pastors or clergy were to mention HIV and AIDS in their homily, they’d be surprised how many people would thank them.”
Miranda said the most recent need has been to start support groups for those infected and affected by HIV. A recent first meeting of a group in Gainesville drew 15 people.
“As Catholics we need to continue to raise questions and to fight against discrimination,” she said. “I am sometimes asked if we are Catholic how we can be doing this. But Catholic teaching and AIDS ministry are not mutually exclusive. People with cancer can go to church and have people pray for them. People with HIV don’t immediately have that support. As a church we are in a position to provide that and to bring better awareness.”
Both Collins and Miranda are proud of the work that they have done to serve those with HIV and AIDS. Though the work can be taxing, both turn to their faith for inspiration.
“I really do think it’s a spiritual journey for me,” Collins said. “I’m proud that we were pretty much one of the first Catholic churches to have an active ministry. I’m very honored and proud of the quality of the people who join us. I’m also especially proud that St. Ann’s has never asked the question, ‘how did you get it?’ We just help.”
Miranda, too, looks heavenward for motivation.
“My Catholic faith helps keep me energized. Though there are people suffering, I truly believe that God is not turning a deaf ear to those prayers.”