A Leader in HIV Prevention and Care
When Earl Conner, an Episcopalian minister, became alarmed at the growing AIDS crisis in Indianapolis, he began to form a vision for coordinated community response that would unite existing groups within one facility. With support from Christ Church Cathedral (Episcopal) and the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul (Catholic), Conner established Damien Center in April of 1987.
Since then, the Center has provided care to thousands of individuals affected by HIV and their friends and families and has become a leader in HIV prevention and care. Though established at a time when those infected with HIV were progressing quickly to an AIDS diagnosis and then death, Damien Center today empowers individuals as they live with HIV.
Damien Center is named after the Blessed Father Damien, a Belgian Catholic priest famed for his compassionate care for those affected by Hansen's Disease (leprosy) on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Father Damien battled the religious and societal rejection of Hansen's Disease victims, living with and among them in the Molokai "lepers' colony" from 1873 until his death from Hansen's Disease in 1889. Father Damien was beatified by Pope John Paul II and became a saint in October of 2009.
Though founded as an inter-faith collaboration, Damien Center is now a fully independent, non-sectarian, not-for-profit public corporation. Today, Conner's vision lives on as the Center continues to innovate in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Rev. Earl Conner was the founder of Damien Center. An Indiana native, U.S. Navy veteran, and retired canon with the Episcopal Diocese of Indiana, Rev. Conner dedicated his life after ministry in the church to ministry in the HIV/AIDS community.
In July of 1987, Rev. Conner hosted an open house and presented Damien Center to the community. He told the press that it cost $2,500 a month to run the center and serve the needs of the people who came there. At that time, much of that need was providing compassionate care to people suffering from AIDS, as there were still no medicines to reduce the impact of HIV. An extremely talented administrator, he built relationships with other faith organizations and broke down barriers of distrust the gay community had about religious groups. He opened the doors of Damien Center in 1987, and left a legacy that went from helping people die with dignity to helping people live with dignity.
His work continued though, and today Damien Center is the largest AIDS service organization in the state of Indiana, serving over 4,000 individuals every year. “Thanks to Rev. Conner’s vision and work,” says Damien Center CEO, Alan Witchey, “Damien Center has gone from a place in 1987 which helped people with AIDS die with dignity, to today where we help people with HIV/AIDS live with dignity.”