Gave dignity to women with AIDS
It’s not surprising that Sr. Jeannette Normandin named the home she founded for women with HIV/AIDS Ruah, the Hebrew word for “breath of life.” Normandin was a breath of life for the untold numbers of people she touched during a lifetime of ministering to the most vulnerable members of society: prisoners, prostitutes, the homeless, gay men with AIDS ostracized by family members and medical practitioners in the early years of the epidemic, and gay and lesbian Catholics marginalized by a disapproving church hierarchy.
As her niece Chris Normandin said upon Sr. Jeannette’s death on May 30, 2006, “She was just so loving and accepting and that’s the way she treated everyone. It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from, she was going to treat everyone the same and we’re all children of God, according to her.”
'I think we have the power, the smarts and the love...'
Denise McWilliams, AIDS Action Committee’s General Counsel, first met Sr. Jeanette at MCI Framingham in the early 1980s, where the nun served as prison chaplain and McWilliams worked as a volunteer. McWilliams recalled Sr. Jeannette as a deeply spiritual person who genuinely loved the women inmates to whom she ministered. “She didn’t love them in that sort of abstract way,” said McWilliams in an interview shortly after Sr. Jeannette’s death. “You could actually just see her listening to somebody and just connecting with them in a very deep, emotional way that you could call pastoral. Most people talk about that; I’ve never seen it before or since. She was the one I saw who actually did it.” McWilliams and Sr. Jeannette later worked together for the Inside/Outside Program, an alternative sentencing program for women at Boston Municipal Court and again when they served simultaneously on Ruah’s board of directors.
Sr. Jeannette founded Ruah House, which helps homeless women with HIV/AIDS put their lives back together, in 1994. She also served on AIDS Action Committee’s board of directors. Sr. Jeanette was honored for her work with AIDS Housing Corporation’s Peter Medoff Award and with AIDS Action Committee’s Dr. Jonathan Mann Distinguished Leadership Award. In 2006, her photograph appeared along with dozens of other local and national HIV/AIDS activists in an exhibit marking the 25th anniversary of the epidemic that was displayed at the Jorge Hernandez Cultural Center in the South End. The heading over the array of photos said simply, “People who have made a difference.”
In 2003, Cambridge Cares About AIDS took over Ruah House’s operation and established the Sister Jeannette Normandin Award, which was annually given to individuals and organizations that work with people who have HIV/AIDS. Ruah House is now run by the Boston-based Victory Programs.
But Sr. Jeannette’s efforts in the fight against HIV/AIDS were nearly overshadowed by controversy in 2000, when she was on the pastoral staff at the Jesuit Urban Center, which was a spiritual home for many of Boston’s gay Catholics. After she took part in baptizing two babies at one Sunday mass — in violation of church doctrine, which holds that only ordained priests can administer such sacraments — Sr. Jeannette was fired from her ministry and forced to move off the premises. Her ouster after 11 years outraged many in the congregation and generated headlines in the local media.
It wasn’t the first time she challenged Catholic orthodoxy. In fact, the babies Sr. Jeanette took part in baptizing were both the children of same-sex couples, despite the Church’s condemnation of homosexuality. Two months prior to the baptism controversy, church officials ordered her to stop preaching sermons during Sunday mass, another task reserved for ordained men only. Despite her harsh treatment by the hierarchy, Sr. Jeannette held fast to her belief that she and other like-minded Catholics could make the church more inclusive of women. “I think we have the power, the smarts and the love, which is important,” she said shortly after her firing. Despite the disagreement, Sr. Jeannette stuck with the church until her death from a stroke at age 77. She took her vows as a nun in 1948.
But she would not have wanted to be remembered as a saint, said AIDS Action Committee Executive Director Rebecca Haag. “She could get in there and fight with the best of them,” Haag said in an interview shortly after Sr. Jeannette’s death. “She was scrappy and tough.” Sr. Jeannette was an unlikely rebel, said Haag. “You wouldn’t think that because of what she chose as her profession,” said Haag. “But in some ways she put herself right in the middle of the whole swirl and still made a difference.”