David Pais

An Unwitting Pilgrim: David Pais

David Pais’ life so far has been an unwitting pilgrimage. “Everything that’s happened to me in my life has not been planned. I’m being led,” he said.

Pais, a devout Catholic, is also gay and a long-term HIV survivor. He started volunteering for GMHC as soon as the agency opened forty years ago, wanting to help people affected by the mysterious new disease that would come to be known as AIDS. (Years later, he became GMHC’s major gifts officer before recently retiring.)

Pais is featured in a new book, Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear, which, he said, “tells the story of the people in the pews who tried to put their faith into practice.”

While the church hierarchy’s homophobia in those days is well known, Hidden Mercy tells a story that’s less well known, Pais said, about “the incredible support that regular Catholics gave in the early days of the epidemic—the nurses at St. Vincents’ Hospital and volunteers at GMHC.”

The author, Michael O’Loughlin, who’s also Catholic and gay, based it on his podcast, “Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church,” for America magazine, a Jesuit review of faith and culture.

When Pais graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1972, he signed up for a Catholic program that placed teachers in high schools worldwide. Moving to New York City never crossed his mind. “They said they could send me to Jamaica,” he said. “I got sent to Jamaica, Queens. That’s how I ended up in New York.”

On July 3, 1981, the AIDS epidemic found him, when his neighbor in Greenwich Village, a “bright, charming, handsome” gay man from New Orleans, Pais said, slipped a note under his door that read: “This is what Paul died from.” Enclosed was an article from that day’s New York Times reporting that a rare cancer, Kaposi sarcoma, had been diagnosed in 41 gay men. Pais’ neighbor was diagnosed with it soon after, and he died four months later.

“I vowed that day that I would get involved as soon as I heard of anything helping to combat this illness,” Pais said.

He started volunteering at GMHC the week it opened in February 1982. First, he answered the phone, and then GMHC hired him to do AIDS education and outreach, while continuing to answer calls.

“Listening to people became a very important project,” Pais said, because both those who were sick and their care partners needed support. “There was not much we could do about the illness. All we could do was listen and try to assuage their fear.”

After a couple of years, he said, “I was fried crispier than a french fry. I knew 200 people who had died. I couldn’t go to another funeral. I couldn’t sit another shiva. I just couldn’t.”

Meeting Bill

Pais left his GMHC job and in November 1984, he met a young man, Bill Neitzel, from Philadelphia. Soon after, Bill moved in with him in New York. “I fell head over heels in love with him,” Pais said.

By 1985, GMHC was encouraging people to get tested for HIV so they’d know their status, he said, even though there wasn’t any effective treatment. He still remembers the date, Oct. 31, 1985, when both his and Bill’s tests came back positive for HIV. Bill was in far worse health, he said, with a T cell count of only 75. “I had to take care of him first.”

Pais joined a support group for care partners at GMHC. Along with his earlier volunteer experience, it gave him “the strength, courage, and knowledge to be the person I’d hoped to be when my own partner got sick,” he said.

Bill passed away in Pais’ arms in June 1987. “He would be with me the rest of my life,” Pais said.

Pais left the Catholic church after his partner’s death—and then New York. “I was furious with God and probably with life,” he said. By 1994 though, he said, “I missed the sacramental life and the community that my faith had at one point given me.”

He considered joining the Episcopal church upon returning to New York from a sojourn in Seattle, but an Episcopal priest and friend whom he consulted diagnosed him as “hopelessly Catholic,” and instead recommended a Jesuit parish, St. Francis Xavier, in Chelsea.

Pais said he slid into a back pew at St. Francis Xavier one Sunday for mass, ready to bolt. “I said to myself, if they say one homophobic remark, I’m out of here.” Instead, he said, “by the end of mass there were tears streaming down my face. I felt I had found a home.”

St. Francis Xavier remains his spiritual home to this day. “That hot Sunday morning, I found that not only was I accepted, I was encouraged to use whatever gifts I had to help people I care about,” he said.

Soon after joining the church in 1994, Pais and a nun on staff started a peer counseling group for people affected by HIV and AIDS, which they led until 1999, through one of the worst times of the epidemic. The church’s sanctuary has a side altar dedicated to people who’ve died from AIDS or are living with HIV, he said, so “people can come to rest and pray.”

The Camino

Pais said he’d talked to Bill before he died about walking the Camino de Santiago, a Christian pilgrimage route in Northern Spain for centuries. But his partner was not well enough by then, so Pais promised him that he’d make the pilgrimage for both of them.

Life intervened though. “By 2019 I was approaching 70, and I’d had a heart attack. I told myself if I’m going to do this, I need to go now,” he said. He left for Spain that October and took a month to walk the 600-kilometer route, stopping in to pray at churches along the way.

“My Bill had an incredible cackle. Whenever he started laughing, the whole room did too. There were days I heard the wind cackling and knew he was with me,” Pais said.

Pais visited the Cathedral of St. Mary in Burgos at the suggestion of a friend and chose a pew up front for the morning mass. “I looked up at the altar and broke out in tears,” he remembered. “The corpus on the crucifix was covered in purple splotches. They were Jesus’s wounds from being beaten, but to me, they looked exactly like Kaposi sarcoma–like the wounds that Bill had, as someone dying from AIDS.”

Famed for its miracles, the Christ of Burgos has become sacred to people with Kaposi sarcoma, Pais later learned.

“I walked around for hours after that, just staring at the various relics and artwork in some kind of trance state,” he said, recalling that the limestone cathedral was suffused with a golden light. “I felt like I was in the city of God, walking around with the other residents of the city.”

“That was just one of the miracles that happened to me on the route,” Pais said, reflecting on the ongoing miracle of surviving with HIV for so long before the advent of antiretroviral medications in the mid-1990s.

“I don’t know why, but through a combination of good medical care, stubbornness, and the grace of God, I’m still here,” he said. “I’ve still got work to do.”

The Christ of Burgos in the Cathedral of St. Mary, along the Camino de Santiago in Burgos, Spain
The Christ of Burgos in the Cathedral of St. Mary, along the Camino de Santiago in Burgos, Spain (photo credit: Z. Borowski)

After 40 years, we’re still fighting for those living with HIV and AIDS. Honor those we’ve lost. Support those who are still here.