BELMONT — Brenda, 65, became infected with HIV after exchanging needles. She did not know where to turn until three years ago, when she found the House of Mercy.
“It was the hardest thing in the beginning, but I’m fine now,” she says. “I feel like this is my home.”
For the past 25 years, people like Brenda have found a refuge of peace and hope at the House of Mercy.
It all began in 1991, after the Sisters of Mercy stepped up to respond to the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic. With the help of a $100,000 donation and a $100,000 loan from the Diocese of Charlotte, they opened the House of Mercy to provide persons living with AIDS with unconditional love and full-time medical care.
Since 1991, the House of Mercy has welcomed 323 low-income people living with HIV/AIDS.
Each receives personalized care. Some come to the House of Mercy to live and die in peace; others choose to aggressively treat AIDS. Some return to independent living. Services include helping obtain medications and coordinating services such as physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy.
Caring for people who have AIDS is a “sacred ministry,” says Mary Wright, the first president of the House of Mercy.
But it wasn’t easy at first. The sisters had to work to overcome the shame and misconceptions associated with the disease since it first emerged in the 1980s in the homosexual community.
“It was very challenging,” Wright explains. “To even think of doing something for people with HIV/AIDS, it took an incredible amount of education on many fronts to overcome the stigmas. Plus, “there wasn’t any housing with people living with AIDS. It was hard to figure out what to do and how to do it.
“I always felt it was sacred ground, being located on the grounds of the Sisters of Mercy. It was back in the woods at the time. As we were clearing the field, I had hoped we were clearing the stigmas that were involved with AIDS.”
During her years as president, the residents taught Wright about faith, hope and love, she says. “I always said if you combined unconditional love with spiritual and physical nutrition, people will thrive. And they did.”
“There was another stigma at the time that people were coming there to die. I always said, ‘No, you’re coming here to live. If you coming here to die, you can die anywhere, but you’re going to live here.’”
“This really is a call,” says Shirley Stowe, House of Mercy’s current director of nursing who has worked there since 1998. “We are here because we want to be here. We know this place is special. The impact that we can make on our residents’ lives – it is an extension of our family. We are a family here.”
Perceptions about people living with AIDS have changed profoundly, Stowe notes, as have treatment options. She recalls that there was only one drug to treat the disease back in the early 1990s. Now there are more drugs for treatment and if the disease is diagnosed early, it can be managed effectively.
“I want people to know that we love our residents unconditionally from the time they come through that door for the first time,” Stowe says. “We do not need to look back. We don’t need to know what brought them here. We are here to give anyone that comes through those doors a chance – a chance to physically heal, spiritually heal and emotionally heal.”
“We hug here,” she adds. “I am not afraid to ask (family or visitors) the question, ‘You know it’s OK to touch and hug someone (with AIDS)?’”
A dedicated team of volunteers and supporters help the sisters make the House of Mercy an inviting home.
“I originally met with the volunteer coordinator at that time and she told me the residents love to play Bingo, so that’s what we do,” says Carolyn Rose, who has been volunteering for over a year. “I call the games and the residents get quite involved, playing for candy prizes. We have lots of laughs along the way.”
“I just enjoy the residents tremendously! I don’t know much about them except that they have AIDS and seem glad to be living at the House of Mercy.”
“It took time for me to gain their trust,” she says. “I remember that early on, one of them asked me why I wanted to be there. I told her I thought any organization that offered support to AIDS patients was a very worthwhile place to spend time. And, it’s just fun.”
“I volunteer because I am passionate about sharing my love and faith with those who are in need of joy and comfort in their lives,” adds Maggie Baucom, who is the chair of the House of Mercy board. “I was educated by the Sisters of Mercy on the same campus where the House of Mercy is located and I find great joy and honor in being a steward of their generous and compassionate mission.”
“Many of our residents experience dignity and mercy for the first time in their lives at the House of Mercy, and that knowledge is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling gifts of my life,” she says. “To be a part of a ministry that affords another person the simple gifts that I have been blessed with for a lifetime is humbling and certainly grounds me as a person of faith.”
Stan Patterson, president of the House of Mercy, has worked with the sisters for more than 30 years, first at Mercy Hospital in Charlotte, then for the past 19 years at the House of Mercy.
“The House of Mercy represents a community success,” Patterson says. “It’s been an effort to provide services for those who really are needy. The community has stepped up in a significant way. We feel that it has been very successful in terms of taking a very difficult situation and making it manageable for many of our residents, and the community is a reason for making that happen.”
Much of the funding for the House of Mercy’s $700,000 annual budget comes directly from the Sisters of Mercy. There are also grants, fundraisers like the annual Walk for AIDS in downtown Belmont, and private donors who have kept the home running over the past 25 years, Patterson says.
“One of the most important aspects of the House of Mercy, in addition to providing care for those who are definitely in need, is the opportunity for our volunteers and those who want to get involved to develop their own spiritual life by being involved with the ministry,” he says. “It really affords an opportunity for those who wish to give funding or give time, to benefit personally themselves. I think this sometimes gets lost – that the donors themselves benefit from participation.”
Working with the House of Mercy and the sisters has enriched Patterson’s life, he says.
“It’s been a great experience to be involved with the ministry and with the sisters. It is an opportunity to develop my spiritual path. At times it has been challenging, but it has been a rewarding experience for me personally.”
Residents including Brenda agree that the sisters and the House of Mercy have made their lives better, treating them like family in a home filled with mercy and love.
“I like their recreation, going bowling and going to the movies and playing Bingo,” Brenda says. “I love them (the staff). They are just perfect.”
— SueAnn Howell, senior reporter