November 2010: SISTER MARY ELLEN ROMBACH (entered eternal life on March 27, 2014)
Kissing the leper was a moment of conversion for St. Francis. In this most humbling of acts, he reached out to someone in need.
Responding to a need
While serving as Director of Pastoral Care at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Belleville, IL, from 1981-86, Sister Mary Ellen followed the media reports of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. She and Sister Carol Baltosiewich (formerly a Hospital Sister of St. Francis) talked about beginning a ministry to help those who were suffering. Their idea was approved by the Motherhouse leadership, and the two Sisters traveled to New York City for one year of training. They worked at two hospitals and visited patients in addition to attending workshops and seminars. Recalling how many people were disgusted by the disease and who saw it as a punishment for homosexual men’s behaviors, Sister Mary Ellen asked herself, “Where would Christ be for those afflicted in their time of need? The answer: Christ would be at their side.” Like St. Francis, she reached out and kissed the leper.
Upon returning to Belleville, the Sisters opened Bethany Place in 1988. They began with a hotline, education for patients, and a support group for families. At first, even the people with AIDS and their families were reluctant, but the Sisters began visiting patients in the hospital and soon the positive word spread. Bethany is the biblical village where Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived and where hospitality was offered to Jesus.
The ministry continues
“Blossoming vision: those two words sum up Bethany Place’s 22 years of stellar services provided to those affected by HIV thanks to our founding Sisters. At first offering only Case Management services, we now provide transitional housing for homeless and HIV+ men, prevention/education to 13 counties, free HIV testing, a syringe/needle exchange program, and rental assistance to those in need of our services,” said Angela K. Barnes, Bethany Place Executive Director. Sister Mary Ellen’s “perseverance, compassion, and fearlessness came at a time when there was little education on HIV, and discussion about HIV was followed with much discrimination,” she added.
Sister Mary Ellen’s message to those who read this story is simple: “Have courage. Trust in God. And most of all, be mindful of those who suffer. Kiss the lepers in our world, and in doing so, look in their eyes for you will see the face of God.”