Feud threatens to close AIDS hospice in city

Church sues nuns, wants majority control of Richey

3 board members countersue

Extent of spiritual role at center of long dispute

May 21, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

Bitter feuding among deadlocked board members is threatening to close Joseph Richey House, Baltimore's pioneering AIDS and cancer hospice.

"It's a question of authority. We do not have any beef with the palliative care given there. It's America's best hospice," said the Rev. John William Klein, rector of Mount Calvary Church.

The church and the Episcopal Sisters of the Poor share oversight of the hospice. Each side has three members on the board of directors, creating the current stalemate over control.

Mount Calvary Church, in a lawsuit, seeks to close the 20-bed hospice at 820 N. Eutaw St., contending that the end-of-life facility has strayed from its original spiritual mission.

The church's lawsuit - and a countersuit filed by representatives of the nuns - are scheduled to be heard in court in January. Depending on the outcome of those legal actions, the hospice could close next year.

Joseph Richey is one of two hospices caring for terminally ill AIDS patients in Baltimore, many of them African-American, under a federal program for the poor, according to the city Health Department. Should the hospice close, that would "create a huge gap," said Richard Matens, a Health Department official.

Klein insisted that "dissolution is, of course, not what we want." But he and the two other church representatives on the hospice's board have asked the Baltimore Circuit Court to close the hospice if Catonsville-based Sisters of the Poor do not give the Episcopal parish majority control of the hospice.

The two groups created Joseph Richey, named after a former rector of Mount Calvary, in 1980.

Mother Catherine Grace, superior of the Sisters of the Poor, was at a retreat and unavailable for comment.

Three board members representing the nuns have countersued the Mount Calvary officers, claiming the church has repeatedly sabotaged the hospice, which it adjoins.

The legal battle has halted Joseph Richey's plans to open a 10-bed hospice for children. More than $1 million has been raised for an adjoining children's hospice. Charlotte Hawtin, the hospice's communications director, said the organization would be "duty-bound to return" the money if the dispute between the church and the Sisters of the Poor is not resolved.

The legal battle started in December after years of escalating tensions between the 100-member congregation and the nuns.

At one point, the church evicted the hospice's offices from two rowhouses on Eutaw Street, Joseph Richey board Chairman Albert Gettier said in a recent open letter to the 116 parishes of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

Because of the stalemate over control, the hospice is operating without board oversight or a formally approved budget. Nevertheless, it continues to provide round-the-clock care to about 350 terminally ill patients each year.

Richey is unusual in that its two medical directors are volunteers, as are about 30 doctors providing care. The hospice has a 53-member nursing and household staff working under Ruth Eger, the executive director. It allows 24-hour visitor access to patients and permits family members to stay with them overnight.

A central contention of Mount Calvary's lawsuit is that Eger, as a result of the board's paralysis, has gained control of the hospice and "has emphasized [its] secular mission at the expense of its spiritual mission."

Klein said that his parish, which he described as a "witness to Orthodox Christianity," wants to use Richey as an "extension of the church's sacred outreach."

Hawtin, Richey's director of communications, said the hospice "has never been about proselytizing, not ever. Ours is a ministry of touch."

Anthony McCarthy, publisher of Gay Life and assistant pastor of Mount Vernon's interdenominational Unity Fellowship Church, described the Richey hospice as "an incredible, loving, restful place."

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