In a time in which the Catholic Church explained that AIDS was a punishment for being gay, and Church officials called AIDS patients perverts, one Catholic nurse from Illinois decided to dedicate her life specifically to treating AIDS patients. In the mid-eighties, as many families chose to cut contact with their ill children – whether due to the stigma or the fear of catching the disease – Carol Baltosiewich chose to hold their hand in their final moments.
She was born to a devout Polish-American family in Illinois. Carol herself was also devout, and after high school she decided to dedicate herself to the church and became a nun. Instead of entering the convent, she became a nurse at a Catholic hospital in Belleville, a city of 42,000 residents at the time. It was the largest city in the heart of Illinois’ agricultural area. Her job was to make home visits to patients in remote farms, who were too ill to get to the hospital.
One day, she was sent to a patient in a remote farm. When she got to the farm, she met an LGBT AIDS patient for the first time in her life.
She discovered that the patient was in his twenties, and recently returned from New York. He moved to New York because he was gay and he didn’t want his family to know. He was also a dancer, and was hired as a dancer in the Joffrey Ballet.
Carol recognized the dance troupe – it was her favorite ballet troupe. Suddenly she realized that she had something in common with the AIDS patient.
She understood how little she knew about AIDS. During the next month and a half, Carol came across a few more such patients: patients who returned from New York in disgrace. They and their families wanted to keep their illness a secret.
Six weeks later, the first patient, the ballet dancer, passed away in his home. Carol began to understand how little knowledge she had regarding caring for AIDS patients.
As those around her fled from the emerging plague, she wanted to enter the lion’s den. She went to her superiors with one request: to be sent for advanced training in AIDS treatment at a Catholic hospital in the heart of Manhattan. She told her managers that if they expect to see many more such patients, they had to understand the disease.
After much debate, Carol was sent along with another nurse who volunteered for the mission, Mary Ellen Rombach. . And so Carol found herself at Saint Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center in Greenwich Village, one of the hospitals that became the focal points of AIDS treatment. It was their first time in New York.
One day, one of her patients told Carol that if she really wanted to understand how to help AIDS patients, she needed to understand the gay community. She realized that in order to help AIDS patients, she needed to see them as people first, patients second.
A different Catholic nurse might have said: Enough. With all due respect to Christian compassion, acknowledging the homosexual lifestyle is another thing altogether. It is lifestyle which her Church declared a sin.
But Carol wasn’t a typical Catholic nurse. She took his advice, and started going to gay clubs, meetings, drag events, and more.
Wherever she went, she was asked difficult questions that never ceased to amaze her. “I was shocked that people did all of that. First of all, that such gay sex existed, and then hearing about all the other types of sex. Toys, threesomes – everything you could things of was there.” she said. And so Carol the Catholic nun found herself being asked questions about gay sex daily – she and answered them all patiently.
She quickly understood that true treatment of AIDS forces everyone to examine their prejudice. “You couldn’t take care of patients without dealing with your constructions and prejudices. It was impossible to say that what was there was forbidden. The love that was between the patients – it could not have been forbidden. You were able to see the love, care, devotion, concern, tenderness and inclusion they felt towards each other. So how could you see all this and say it’s forbidden? So I started to look at my life and think, Who is Carol? What does Carol want to do with her life?”, she said in one interview.
Carol returned to Illinois after six months in New York. There, she fought for gay rights and for treatment of AIDS patients – going against the Church. As AIDS patients were protesting against the medical and political establishment’s disregard for the disease, Carol established the first treatment center in the United States for AIDS patients. The center also served as a learning center for AIDS treatment, as well as a testing facility and day treatment center. Shortly after, Carol was also appointed as a member of the Illinois AIDS Task Force.
Today Carol is retired, and the center she founded – Bethany Place – still exists. She still considers herself a devout Catholic, but she left the order she was a member of due to her opposition of their treatment of LGBT people and AIDS patients.
In December 2018 the podcast Nancy interviewed Carol and other activists and AIDS patients from that time. This is one of the most touching episodes you’ll ever hear! Click to listen to the episode on Spotify.