Death by Aids: a daily tragedy for the New York parish that can't keep up with funerals

David Usborne in New York on an alarming new trend
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A SHORT RIDE from the financial temples of Wall Street on the elevated train-tracks to east Brooklyn, the Catholic church of St Barbara's, its Spanish-baroque edifice shimmering in the autumn sun, stands like a mirage in a landscape of broken-down public housing and grimy streets.

Inside, the splendour is still more imposing. Daylight streams through the stained-glass windows, illuminating the newly cleaned bas-reliefs and gilding the murals of the saints. But playing out in these pews, almost daily, is one of New York City's harshest tragedies: death by Aids.

This is Bushwick, an Hispan- ic neighbourhood where unemployment is more than 40 per cent and fewer than a third of homes have a telephone. The poverty of its residents threatens only to get deeper as the city and federal governments rush to shrink welfare support. Now, in addition, Bushwick is threatened by the spread of Aids and it is barely coping.

It has already been five years since the pastor of St Barbara's, Monsignor John Powis, came to his congregation with a request: so overwhelming had become the demand for funerals, would they mind delaying the traditional morning mass at 8.30am until 9.30am each day and turning it into a funeral mass? It meant asking them, in effect, to become amateur funeral choristers.

This has been the ritual at St Barbara's ever since. Almost every day, Mgr Powis and a congregation of roughly 40, mostly elderly, local residents, offer music, solace and prayers to the bereaved of the neighbourhood. In 1994, he conducted 245 funerals. He calculates that of those, 184 were victims of Aids, although, on many occasions, he cannot be sure, because families are often un- willing or too ashamed to say.

"You know more or less from the ages," he explained in the study of his high-ceilinged rectory that adjoins St Barbara's. "You know if they are 26 or 28, it was probably Aids. The age usually speaks for itself." In Bushwick, it is not the young that bury the old, but the old who bury the young.

Mgr Powis believes unprotected sex between homosex- uals accounts for only a small proportion of those contracting Aids in his parish. The greatest number, he calculates, are exposed to the virus through drug-taking and dirty needles. While the pace of funerals in the church is about the same as last year, he is noticing a new trend: the proportion of young women has increased noticeably. The pastor's observation appears to be borne out by the latest figures on the status of Aids across New York. For the first time, Aids cases among women have overtaken those among gay and bisexual men, with 520 women diagnosed in the city in the first half of this year. The largest group diagnosed over the same period, however, was male drug-users, at 640 cases.

Made cynical by 30 years as an inner-city priest, Mgr Powis expresses no surprise at what is happening. "All of the young people I see live from day to day without any hope. They have no prospect of work and the result is that most of the young are going to be drug dealers five years from now." But he sees the spiral of despair tightening further. "It is terribly frightening."

The dead come to St Barbara's in such numbers because their families will only be asked to pay if they can afford to and then the fee will be only a fraction of what it would cost at other churches, where, for instance, professional musicians are called in. Nor does Mgr Powis mind if he has never seen the families before. Indeed, most of the time he is celebrating mass for strangers.

He is on the brink of ex-haustion. "I admit it is not the most uplifting way to start the day," he half jokes. For the next few weeks his assistant will be taking funerals. Mgr Powis has been ordered by the Brooklyn diocese to go to a retreat and rest until Christmas.