My Name is Earl ... Conner.
August 08, 2012
Earl Conner: retired Episcopalian minister and committed AIDS activist. Not the namesake of The Damien Center—we'll get to that in a minute—but the man behind what has become Indiana's oldest and largest HIV/AIDS service organization. In the mid-1980s, when HIV and AIDS were still murky, scary, concepts, Earl stepped up to fight the spread of this deadly disease in his community. His alarm at the growing AIDS crisis in Indianapolis led him to seek a coordinated community response by uniting existing groups within one facility. With support from Christ Church Cathedral, an Episcopal church, and the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul, a Catholic church, Earl established the Damien Center in an empty and forgotten archdiocese building in April of 1987.
Earl's friend Evelyn describes those first few months of planning and opening The Damien Center in this post. Though founded as an inter-faith collaboration, The Damien Center is now a fully independent, non-sectarian, not-for-profit public corporation, and Earl's vision for Indianapolis has, in 25 years, saved thousands of lives and enriched thousands more. The Damien Center is now a leader in HIV prevention, education, awareness, and advocacy. In 2011 alone, we served 1,126 clients through care coordination and administered 2,412 free HIV tests.
So where does The Damien Center's name come from? The Center is named after the Blessed Father Damien, a Belgian Catholic priest famed for his compassionate care for those affected by Hansen's Disease, or leprosy, on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Fr. Damien battled the religious and societal rejection of those living with the disease, choosing to live with and among them in the Molokai "lepers' colony" from 1873 until his own death from Hansen's Disease in 1889. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II and became a saint in October of 2009.
His compassion and care, along with Earl Conner's vision, live on through the work we now do at The Damien Center.