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Spotlight Report

Church will end AIDS Ministry

By Wendy Davis, Globe Correspondent, 5/22/2003

Falling victim to budget cuts, the Catholic church's 15-year-old Office of AIDS Ministry is slated to close at the end of June, said program director Sister Zita M. Fleming, who also plans to leave then.

The office, which was started by former Boston Archbishop Cardinal Bernard F. Law in 1988 and joined with Catholic Charities in 1995, currently runs four residential shelters in the Boston area for AIDS patients and also coordinates educational programs at schools and parishes.

While one leading AIDS fighter worried that the program's educational components will cease without a central office, Fleming said the shelters -- in Brighton, Roxbury, Lowell, and the Fenway area -- will continue to operate, accommodating 70 people at a time.

''The work will go on,'' she said, adding that the individual residences will now be responsible for helping patients obtain long-term economic, psychological, and medical assistance. The Haitian Multi-Service Center in Dorchester, which has offered some of the program's services, will continue to operate.

But, said Fleming, the church will stop coordinating speaking and educational efforts at schools and parishes after the office shutters. Fleming, a 71-year-old former classics professor and dean at Regis College who was tapped by Law in 1990 to head the office, frequently traveled to schools to speak about AIDS.

Fleming said the decision to close the office was made six weeks ago. She did not know the program's exact budget -- funding comes from the Archdiocese of Boston, Catholic Charities, and government grants -- but said she thinks it was in excess of $100,000.

The Boston Archdiocese spokesman, the Rev. J. Christopher Coyne, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Fleming views the office's closing as one sign that AIDS is no longer considered the crisis it once was, primarily because new treatments have greatly prolonged patients' lives. ''I don't want to imply that the epidemic is over, because it's not,'' she said. However, she added, ''Even some of the people that I know and love very much are now looking at AIDS as a chronic disease'' rather than a death sentence.

Fleming said she decided to leave a year ago and has spent much of the last 12 months getting programs set up for the work to be decentralized. ''I feel I have done what I can do.'' she said.

However, Larry Kessler, founding director of the AIDS Action Committee in Boston, said he is particularly worried that the educational outreach programs will discontinue. ''The epidemic is far from over,'' he said. ''We tend to forget we have a new generation that needs to be educated.

''There is a perception that it's all conquered,'' added Kessler, who has noticed a decline in volunteers in his own organization from approximately 2,000 three years ago to fewer than 1,000 today. ''In some ways, AIDS has gone underground again.''

This story ran on page B7 of the Boston Globe on 5/22/2003.
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