Saint Sebastian's neighbors object to a proposed facility for AIDS patients | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Saint Sebastian's neighbors object to a proposed facility for AIDS patients 

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They come to Frank Souza for consolation, to know that the Church has not abandoned them at a time when society has branded them outcasts. They find him through the AIDS pastoral care program, an ecumenical group affiliated with hospitals in the Chicago area that offers religious solace to patients with AIDS.

"It's important for them to know that God is still with them," says Souza, a member of the Congregation of Alexian Brothers, an age-old order within the Catholic Church.

Souza responds in a voice that is almost a Hollywood version of what a religious man should sound like--low, soft, and soothing. A nurse who started his career in California, Souza was attracted to the Alexians five years ago, when, he says, "I was at a point in my life where I wanted to do more to help others. I felt that spiritually this was a correct move for me." Now 41, Souza devotes his time to relieving the emotional stress suffered by AIDS patients.

In the Chicago area, his congregation operates the 410-bed Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village. During his bedside visits and in talks with fellow Alexians, Souza says, he was struck by the number of AIDS patients who faced their final days alone, without a home and without family members who would take them in. It seemed only natural, he says, to look beyond their emotional needs and to see what the Church could do to help with their physical needs.

With that in mind, he says, the Alexian Brothers have been negotiating with the archdiocese of Chicago and the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals to convert the unused convent at 825 W. Wellington and the adjacent parking lot of Saint Sebastian's Catholic Church into a residence for 30 people with AIDS. (The parking lot couldn't be used without a zoning variance.)

The archdiocese has granted $200,000 and the use of the Lakeview property to the Alexian Brothers--a total value of $700,000; the Alexian Brothers are committing another $500,000. The money will be used for renovation and the construction of a new wing.

The convent is a three-story red brick building located across the street from Saint Sebastian's grade school, just east of the Illinois Masonic Medical Center. It looks like an immaculately kept apartment building, save for the large white cross that juts up from its roof.

The nuns don't live there anymore, and none have taught at the grade school for almost seven years. If some of the neighbors have their way, no AIDS patients will live there, either.

A printed "neighborhood alert" has gone out from a group calling itself the Lakeview Neighbors United to Preserve Residential Integrity. Father Dan Montalbano, associate pastor of the parish and director of the office of human relations at Saint Sebastian's, says none of the people in the group that he knows of are members of Saint Sebastian's congregation. As a contact person, the alert lists Jim Laramy, who lives west of the proposed home.

Laramy is reluctant to discuss his objections, saying, "The neighbors, the people who have been most closely concerned with this, have made an agreement that we will try to speak with a single voice, and we'll do it through our attorney. I'll be happy to tell you who the attorney is, and I'll tell you that the likelihood of him telling you anything is pretty limited." The group's lawyer George Feiwell says he's in negotiations with the Alexians and doesn't want to discuss the issue.

The Lakeview Neighbors group isn't necessarily antigay. Lakeview has one of the highest concentrations of gays in Chicago, and Saint Sebastian's is where the Chicago chapter of Dignity, a homosexual Catholic group, holds its weekly mass. Fear of AIDS may be another matter.

The concerns expressed in the group's flier, however, are confined to aesthetic and practical issues. It states: "The proposed facility will significantly affect your property and your neighborhood. The plan calls for an ugly institutional 'rooming house' building that is unsuited for a residential neighborhood and readily convertible to other inappropriate uses such as a 'half-way house.'"

Furthermore, the Lakeview Neighbors group appears to be concerned about service vehicles blocking the alley. "The neighborhood," the alert states, "does not need another 'hospital' institutional building."

Lakeview Neighbors may be able to find some legal ground on which to challenge the conversion. In Illinois, there is no state statute regulating land use for the establishment of community residences for the disabled. That power is delegated to the local unit of government, in this case, the city of Chicago.

The city does not have a category of zoning use for AIDS residences. There is a category called residential care homes, and the zoning board has never before considered a variance to allow such a residence to be used for AIDS patients.

In addition, to make room for a new wing, using part of the adjoining parking lot, the Alexian Brothers need a variance to reduce the yard requirement around the convent.

The Alexian Brothers have authorized their attorneys, Winston & Strawn, to secure the services of Daniel L. Houlihan, a Chicago lawyer specializing in zoning matters. Houlihan is also legislative counsel to the Illinois Bar Association.

In order to secure a zoning variance, Houlihan says, the Alexian Brothers will have to meet certain standards. "We'll have to demonstrate that this special use is necessary for the public convenience at this location; is designed, located, and operated to protect the public safety and welfare; and will not cause substantial damage to the value of property in the neighborhood. Those are the classic standards."

The request for the variance was scheduled to be discussed at a meeting of the zoning board on November 13, but the meeting has been rescheduled for January 22.

Lakeview Neighbors recently called their own meeting to discuss ways to prohibit the granting of a zoning variance. Laramy declined to say how many people attended the meeting. Montalbano estimates that there are no more than 30 members in the group.

Montalbano is charitable in his comments regarding the neighbors who oppose the project. However, he does say a representative of Saint Sebastian's should have been invited to the meeting. "We had to notify them about our plans and to invite them to a public hearing of the zoning board," he says. "We found out about their meeting after it was over."

Houlihan wouldn't speculate on his chances for winning the dispute. "It's never wise to second-guess what your opponents are capable of doing," he says. "All the neighbors have to prove is that the special use is not necessary for the public convenience, won't protect the public safety, or will cause damage to the value of their property. Obviously, we are willing to prove that they have nothing to worry about."

Souza adds: "Whenever you do a project like this, there are going to be people who are concerned. Our hope is that through perhaps negotiation and education, we can allay some of those concerns. Certainly there is a lot of fear in society today about the disease. To get rid of that fear, we need the opportunity to educate."

As of October, 917 cases of AIDS had been diagnosed in Chicago, and 494 of those people were still living, according to statistics from the Chicago Health Department. There are no statistics to show the kind of care those patients are receiving.

There is now only one organization in the city that is providing residential care for AIDS patients. Chicago House, with two homes, is able to house 14 persons, and plans to open a third home with room for another 14. Until recently, when a home was opened in Detroit, Chicago House was the only residential care facility for AIDS patients in the midwest.

Representatives of Chicago House declined to comment on the Alexian Brothers' project. The gay community, in general, also seems reluctant to discuss it.

When the archdiocese and the Alexian Brothers announced their collaboration in September, Rick Garcia, a spokesman for the Chicago-based Catholic Advocates for Lesbian and Gay Rights, said the project was greeted with "cautious" and "suspicious" optimism. "I hate to bash them when they attempt to do something good," he said, "but I don't find it especially praiseworthy. They have dragged their feet for such a long time. I want to take them at their word, and I hope this is the beginning of a concrete implementation of the cardinal's words of concern and compassion. They have to start somewhere, and maybe this is a new beginning."

According to Souza, the Alexian Brothers plan to offer care to any man or woman with AIDS or AIDS-related complex who is over the age of 18. The group will be serving the Chicago metropolitan area, but is open to AIDS patients from outside the area.

There are some restrictions. "If they are an IV-drug abuser, they have to be in a program or be willing to go into a program before they can come in," Souza says. "The same is true if they're an alcoholic. They have to be on a program, or willing to go into one.

"And, finally, they have to be psychosocially adaptable to living in a communal living style. There will be common dining, common television room--those kinds of things. So if they can live in a group, then they will be certainly acceptable."

Annual operating costs, estimated at $350,000, would be subsidized by the Alexian Brothers, with additional backing in donations and grants. That money would fund a staff of seven, including a pastoral care director, a social worker, a medical coordinator, a cook, and a housekeeper. "It's important to note that we're not calling this a hospice," Souza says. "A hospice implies licensed care. This isn't."

The Alexian Brothers hope to have the home open by March. "We haven't begun accepting any names for consideration yet," Souza says, "but already we're getting calls. The word has gotten out. We know there is a need."

Montalbano adds: "There is something you ought to know. I think it's amazing that the Church can still attract people to its ministry who want to work with the sick and the needy. We're the Edsels of ministry. You've seen the statistics. Men aren't joining the priesthood in large numbers. We don't have any nuns here because nuns are becoming extinct. And it's sad to say that nobody is stepping forward to fill that void. If we don't provide a home for victims of AIDS, there aren't a lot of other people who are jumping forward with their own plans."

This is not the Church's first foray into providing care to AIDS patients. Similar pastoral and medical programs have been established in the archdioceses of New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

In Chicago, Alexian brother Felix Bettendorf approached Joseph Cardinal Bernardin with a proposal to establish either an "assisted-living residence" or a nursing home and hospice for persons with AIDS. Bettendorf made his proposal after Bernardin came out last fall with his pastoral letter on AIDS.

Bernardin released that letter to appease gay activists, who were angered by the Church's refusal to support a gay rights ordinance in Chicago. In part the letter calls for the expansion of acute and long-term health assistance for people with AIDS, and for the development of hospices. It also asks the 2.3 million Catholics in the archdiocese to set aside their fears about the disease.

In his letter, Bernardin recalls that Jesus Christ "never ceased to reach out to the lowly, to the outcasts of his time--even if they did not live up to the full demands of his teaching."

The Congregation of Cellites, or Alexian Brothers, was founded in Brabant (now Belgium), to meet the needs of the victims of the Black Death in 14th-century Europe. The congregation cared for those sick from the plague and buried the dead. "Because AIDS so mimics the plague victims, this is a way of reaching back into our [history of caring] and saying this is what we are about," Souza says. "As those people were rejected in society, so are AIDS patients today."

In 1865, Brother Bonaventure Thelen was sent to establish an Alexian congregation in the United States. He opened Alexian Brothers Hospital in Chicago the following year. The original church was located at Belden and Racine, on the city's north side. In 1898, the brothers incorporated a school of nursing in Chicago, the only school of nursing for men in the nation.

Since then, Alexian hospitals have been opened in Saint Louis, Missouri; Oshkosh, Wisconsin; Elizabeth, New Jersey; and San Jose, California. "All of our hospitals have been admitting AIDS patients since the beginning of the crisis," Souza says. "Our response to the AIDS crisis was to care for these patients as a way of reaching back into our tradition and our past."

To honor Thelen, the Alexian Brothers plan to name their AIDS residential care home Bonaventure House; it is expected to be the largest residence of its kind in the country.

The parish council of Saint Sebastian voted 16 to 2 in favor of converting its unused convent, says Montalbano. "When the news about this broke, we had television crews here from the Chicago stations doing interviews," he says. "I don't think they found one person against the project. That says something. Across the group lines of the parish, there is solid support for this residential care home."

Souza won't speculate on whether those objecting to the home for AIDS victims really fear contracting AIDS. "I know their stated objection is that property values will be affected by another institution in the neighborhood, and that the building's appearance is institutional rather than fitting in the residential character of the neighborhood," he says. "All I can say is that it's not a hospital, so that should take away some of their concern. We certainly are willing to negotiate with them about the appearance of the building. We're going to work with the community. We want the community to feel ownership, that it's part of their community, something to be proud of."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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