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Bill Irwin: man of exceptional courage
AIDS house a reality, thanks to Father Bill
September 2, 2004
CREDIT: John Lucas, The Journal, File
Bill Irwin, the Edmonton priest who founded Catholic Social
Services, died on Aug. 30 at age 76 from complications related
to Parkinson's disease.
are many wonderful things that will be said about Monsignor Bill
Irwin, but for me it was his courage to act that defined the mutual
trust and friendship that we had for each other, a Catholic priest and
a gay politician.
Before my entry into politics in the 1980s, I had met Father Bill when
he was CEO of Catholic Social Services and I was an employee of the
provincial government. My job entailed the funding of a program that
Catholic Social Services participated in, but my interaction with
Father Bill was primarily at formal occasions.
1984 I became involved with responding to the advent of HIV/AIDS in
Edmonton. As a volunteer I helped organize the AIDS society and spent
time and energy handling media and advocating for education about HIV
and support and care for persons infected.
Twenty years ago, HIV was seen as a "plague" visited on gay men. The
1980s were a period during which many health-care workers would not
treat persons infected, many religious groups described HIV and gay
men as outcasts and "deserving of this disease," and many citizens
were afraid of persons who were HIV positive or were gay.
me personally, this was an extremely busy, challenging time and a bit
early 1986, the Canadian national media ran a number of articles about
the development of housing facilities in Toronto and Vancouver for
persons dying of AIDS. I was quoted locally as saying that there was a
similar need in Edmonton and as a new organization AIDS Edmonton was
hopeful of responding to this need in the future. The truth was that
our organization did not have the finances, expertise or history of
couple of days later my phone rang at my government office and it was
Father Bill. He called to tell me he had read my comments on housing
for persons with AIDS and wanted more background. With his assistance,
I set up a couple of meetings with organizations like Catholic Social
Services that provided housing. This work led to outlining the issues
and solutions for housing persons with AIDS.
Through his contacts and knowledge Father Bill realized that little if
any funding would be available for an "AIDS House," so he decided that
Catholic Social Services would take this on and announced it publicly
at the agency's kickoff to its fundraising campaign.
it happened! About a year later, Catholic Social Services opened its
first AIDS house and shortly after I visited the facility, the staff
and the persons with AIDS living there.
overwhelmed. Father Bill's initiative took great courage and I
understood that better than most.
councillor, Ward 4, Edmonton
© The Edmonton Journal 2004