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Storming the cathedral

Friday, 06 March 2015 Written by // Bob Leahy - Editor Categories // Activism, Gay Men, Events, Television, International , Treatment, Living with HIV, Bob Leahy

Bob Leahy and the 1989 ACT Up protest that saw angry demonstrators enter St. Patrick's Cathedral In New York during Mass and disrupt the service - and the drama that followed, including footage of their later appearance on the Phil Donahue TV show

Storming the cathedral

On December 10, 1989 ACT UP demonstrated both inside and outside St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, the building a bastion of Catholicism. Five thousand people, says ACT UP’s website, protested the Roman Catholic Archdiocese's public stand against AIDS education and condom distribution, and its opposition to a women's right to abortion.  

As protesters jostled with police outside, a few dozen entered the cathedral, interrupted Mass, chanted slogans or lay down in the aisles. One protestor broke a communion wafer and threw it to the floor. According to Wikipedia, 111 protesters were arrested.

Says Wikipedia “As a result of the St. Patrick's Cathedral action, ACT UP was publicly condemned by Mayor Edward Koch and some media for what they viewed as militancy and disrespect. NY Gov. Mario Cuomo "deplored the demonstration." ACT UP's account of the event notes that "The news media choose to focus on, and distort, a single Catholic demonstrator's personal protest involving a communion wafer.

A fascinating story in Free Radio Europe tells more of what exactly happened that day. Here is the account of one protester who was there inside the cathedral, gay rights-activist Michael Petrelis (left, below).

“Things started normally. Archbishop [John Cardinal] O'Connor welcomed parishioners to St. Patrick's for that day's 11 a.m. Mass, and after he made his welcoming remarks, he then said that the church had protesters who were there because they were upset with the church and what it was doing in terms of public policy on AIDS prevention issues, gay rights, and women's health, especially about the church's opposition to abortion. My recollection is that Archbishop O'Connor asked for his followers to remain calm and to not express anger at the disruption that was expected.

It was at that point that an affinity group of Act Up stood up and began to read a statement about why we were in the church. The affinity group from Act Up stands up and is reading a written statement about our complaints with the Catholic hierarchy. And at that point, parishioners stood up and started praying. Then you had other affinity groups stand up and try to read the statement from a different part of the church, which is huge.

I would say about five minutes into that confusing time is when you had other affinity groups step into the aisles and lay down. They were then blocking the aisles with their bodies and what happened next was that assisting priests were stepping over the protesters lying in the middle of the church, and they were distributing a leaflet; a written response from the church to the protesters was being thrown on top of them as they were in the aisles.

I first started blowing a whistle. The reason why I had a whistle that day is because there had been a number of antigay bashings in Manhattan, and the gay community in response had distributed whistles as a form of protection. So there I am, standing up on the pew, blowing my whistle, and a police officer came over to me and was really nice and said, "Sir, you're going to have to sit down." So I sat down for a moment, the police officer went away, I stood back up on the pew, and I decided that I had to scream something.

I was maybe in the 10th row, so I was very close to Archbishop O'Connor. So I started screaming, "Stop killing us." I repeated: "Stop killing us" at the top of my lungs. The reason why I was yelling "stop killing us" was because the Catholic Church had a lot of influence over public policy regarding AIDS prevention and the Catholic Church was stopping the distribution of condoms. More people were contracting HIV, they developed full-blown AIDS, and were dying.

You have all that confusion going on, and it's at that point that uniformed police come with stretchers, canvas stretchers, to start carrying out the people who were lying in the aisle. The folks who were lying in the aisle were resisting arrest. So the cops started putting the protesters' bodies on the canvas stretchers, taking them out through the doors of the church into the police wagons waiting outside.

What we didn't know is that the church service continued and quickly went to the Communion service began. And parishioners and protesters went up to the altar to receive the Communion wafer. And one man from Act Up took the Communion wafer that Archbishop O'Connor had just given him and said, "I reject your teachings." He crumpled the Communion wafer, it fell to the floor, and the assisting priests dived down to the floor to gather up the Communion wafer.

This matter of the Communion wafer being crumpled and falling to the floor was a big part of the discussion, because the Catholic hierarchy had made that a primary focus of their response to the protest. They said that what had been done to the Communion wafer was so offensive to Catholics everywhere.”


Subsequent to the public outcry that resulted, Phil Donahue assembled a panel of ACT UP members to face a partly hostile, partly friendly TV live audience. What follows is both fascinating drama and an essential study of the environment that AIDS activism operated in in pre-ART America.

Where did all that passion, that anger go, one wonders?

If you want to see footage of the demonstration go here first (brief but all that I could locate) then go watch the Phil Donahue show in its entirety. You won't regret it.

In the video below you see ACT UP members Larry Kramer, Mark Harrington, Peter Staley, Ann Northrop, Robert Garcia face Phil Donahue, a Catholic himself and a lively - and vocal - studio audience.  

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