St. Mary’s Church in Northampton was served by assistant pastor Robert L. Arpin from 1972 to 1975. St. Mary’s is a Catholic church, and Robert Arpin was a priest. It was in Northampton, he reveals in his memoir, that he began to suspect that he was gay. He took a two year leave of absence from the ministry during which he confirmed that suspicion. Afterwards, he requested assignment to minister in San Francisco. There, in 1981, he witnessed the beginning of the AIDS epidemic among gay men. Diagnosed himself with AIDS in 1987, he became the first Roman Catholic priest to come out as being gay and also as having AIDS.
Father Bob, as he became known, wrote a memoir with the title of Wonderfully, Fearfully Made. Published in 1993, the book details some of his experiences in Northampton. The twenty-five year-old Chicopee native was newly ordained as a priest in 1972. St. Mary’s was his very first parish. A self-described fat and studious only child in an extended family of French-Canadian heritage, he had played priest at age five using Necco candy wafers to give communion. He been educated entirely within the Catholic system, including two seminaries.
Within the first six months at St. Mary’s, he began to question his sexuality. He writes: “I started, for the first time in my life, paying attention to my physical and emotional desires. I started recognizing that I was having fantasies that weren’t all related to standing at the altar and being a priest and that I was attracted emotionally and sexually to other men.” He continues, “This self-recognition came very slowly for me… it was helped along by a series of ministries and events not the least of which was my appointment as chaplain to Smith College (where) I was introduced early in my ministry to the notions of feminism and, in the process, met lots of lesbians on campus.”
Arpin goes on to mention a sudden and rapid increase in gays coming to him for Saturday night confession at St. Mary’s. This culminated in a group of them from the “Gay Student Union” ( probably UMass SHL/GLF) knocking on the rectory door to speak with him. They told Arpin, with thanks, that he was the first priest in the area who hadn’t thrown them out as soon as they identified themselves.
For fear of losing his vocation, he couldn’t come out to these gay parishioners, except, eventually for a very few close friends. When Arpin told his spiritual advisor of his new feelings, he was told him he couldn’t be both priest and gay at the same time. His advisor referred him to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, after determining that the priest didn’t feel guilty, advised him merely to be “discrete.”
Arpin found his support mostly outside the Valley. He made his way to the Boston chapter of Dignity, the gay Catholic group, where he found other gay and very closeted priests from the region. The stories of persecution by the Church he heard there confirmed his need to stay in the closet, even though it caused him no end of stress to hide those parts of himself.
Being closeted and overworking himself led to recurring bouts of hepatitis during his three year ministry in Northampton. This was the direct causing of his request for a two year leave of absence. Spending this time in San Francisco, supporting himself outside the Church with odd jobs, and getting gay friendly therapy restored his health and convinced him he could be a gay priest. At his request, the Springfield Diocese loaned him to the San Francisco Diocese, where he began a ministry as a hospital chaplain and grief counselor.
Father Bob came out publicly in 1987 after being himself diagnosed with AIDS. When he came out as a priest to the gay community, he began a new ministry. After coming out to Church authorities, including the Springfield Bishop and San Francisco Archbishop, he was supported financially and spiritually by the Springfield Diocese and allowed to continue the work in California, where he now became an open advocate on a national as well as local level for the treatment, care, and acceptance of people with AIDS. He also continuing his work with the grieving. He died in 1995, eight years after being given a diagnosis which predicted his death within eighteen months.
__Arpin, Fr. Robert L. Wonderfully, Fearfully Made: Letters on Living with Hope, Teaching Understanding, and Ministering with Love, From a Gay Catholic Priest with AIDS. HarperCollins Publishers. New York, NY. 1993.
__Shea, Tom. “Tom Shea’s Notebook.” Springfield (MA) Union-News. Dec. 29, 1988. p21.
__Fernss, Susan. “S.F. mourns gay priest who saw no bounds to love.” Examiner. San Francisco CA. May 28, 1995.