County Priest Dies of Aids; Known As Articulate Activist

By Lynn Smith
Los Angeles Times
February 18, 1989

An Orange County priest who had spearheaded local clergy's response to AIDS patients has himself died of the disease after being quietly tended by his colleagues, friends said Friday.

Father John W. Lord, 46, died Wednesday at the rectory of St. Columban Church in Garden Grove, the parish where he had lived for the last 6 years and where he was known as a friendly and articulate priest, according to a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange. Services for Lord were held Friday night at the church.

"Every loss of a priest is sad," Diocese of Orange Bishop Norman F. McFarland said Friday. "There's also a special sadness when a young man with a great potential dies."

First Acknowledged Victim

Lord was the first priest acknowledged to have died of acquired immune deficiency syndrome in the Diocese of Orange. Catholic officials said they do not know, nor are they concerned with, how Lord contracted AIDS.

McFarland said the diocese has no special policy for priests with AIDS -- a sensitive topic for the church because most cases of AIDS are contracted by means of homosexual contact or intravenous drug use. About 2% of AIDS cases are attributed to blood transfusions.

Lord had undergone blood transfusions more than 7 years ago, said St. Columban's pastor, Father Eamon O'Gorman, Lord's superior. He said he does not know the reason.

Diocesan officials said the nature of Lord's disease was revealed to anyone who asked.

"The parish is going to miss him," said Joyce Zolnay, outgoing president of the parish women's club, who said she had known for about a year that Lord had AIDS.

"He worked well with youth," she said. "He had a way of touching people.

"People are going to think what they are going to think. It's really sad."

O'Gorman said that Lord was devastated in September, 1987, when he was diagnosed with AIDS. "He didn't want people to know," he added.

O'Gorman said his first priority was to support Lord, and secondly to ascertain any risks. He said he studied everything written by the U.S. surgeon general on the subject, consulted with local AIDS experts and established that there was no risk to anyone who came in contact with Lord.

However, to deal with any perceived risk on the part of parishioners, O'Gorman said that he and Lord decided to celebrate Mass together and drink from the same communion cup in public. "I would make it a point to receive the chalice after he did" as a "silent assurance" to parishioners, O'Gorman said.

To the "very few" who made an appointment to ask about Lord's condition, O'Gorman said he explained what he knew about it. "Nobody had any problem," he said.

Lord then took sick leave, living briefly at a residence for priests teaching at Mater Dei High School, but he returned the first of this year to the rectory, where O'Gorman said he, their colleagues and nurses ministered to Lord day and night.

'I Felt Very Privileged'

"I felt such a deep compassion . . . for him," O'Gorman said. "I felt very privileged to be part of this time of his life with him."

Lord faced death serenely, O'Gorman said: "His death was so peaceful, it was imperceptible."

O'Gorman once asked Lord what having AIDS meant to him as a priest. "He said, 'It's my belief this will make the church a more compassionate place,' " the pastor said.

Indeed, he said Lord's death shows that AIDS is "something we have to face with a lot of sensitivity, and face up to the fact that it's a reality among us.

"He was my brother, and I suppose I discovered what that means. Brotherhood is not having the freedom not to respond."

A native of Brookline, Mass., Lord was a substance-abuse counselor and church worker in Alaska before beginning studies to become a Paulist father at age 34. In 1978-80, he was chaplain at St. Mark's Newman Center, serving students at UC Santa Barbara, then was a deacon at Good Shepherd Church in New York City for a year before moving west in 1981.

The proximity of the sea and the weather probably figured in Lord's decision to come to Orange County, because he was an avid sailor, O'Gorman said.

Because there is no Paulist community in the county, Lord applied to become a diocesan priest. He was a deacon at St. Irenaeus Church in Cypress until being ordained in 1983 by the late Bishop William Johnson.

His first assignment was as associate pastor at St. Columban, where he was known for his articulate homilies and liberal opinions.

Ironically, in 1986, before he was diagnosed, Lord helped to lead the AIDS Ministry Ecumenical Network (AMEN), a loose-knit group of about a dozen clergymen who volunteer to offer compassion and officiate at funerals of AIDS victims.

"There were very little resources in the county at the time," said Nancy Radclyffe, director of the AIDS Response Program of Orange County. "There were probably two or three clergy heavily overworked in that area."

He volunteered for a year until he became ill in 1987, she said.

There is no connection between his volunteer work and his contracting AIDS, Radclyffe said.

"AMEN now is trying to encourage more education among churches to get both the clergy and laity more educated about the real facts relevant to AIDS, (and) the church's role in this crisis," she said.

"People still have a lot of misconceptions on how you get AIDS -- maybe from the communion cup or sitting next to a person in church, which is not true."

Radclyffe said many parents of AIDS victims have been shunned in church.

"From a pastoral care perspective, the Catholic Church is trying to increase (its) presence in the AIDS crisis," she said. "One of the blocks to that is the very strong statement from the Pope himself (against) homosexuality."

As of Jan. 31, 945 cases of AIDS have been reported in Orange County. Of those, 547 have died. Mirroring national trends, 2% of the reported AIDS patients contracted the disease through transfusion of blood or blood products; 66.8% were homosexual men; 18.7% bisexual men, and 4% intravenous drug users.

Bishop McFarland was to officiate at Friday night's service. Burial will take place in Massachusetts.

Lord is survived by a sister, Mary Mahoney of Manchester, Conn.; two nephews, and several aunts and uncles, his associates said.


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