Father D’Ag

4 12 2006

Father D’Ag has died and the HIV+ children of Kenya have lost their most fearsome advocate.

Here’s the Washington Post’s obituary:

Angelo D’Agostino: Priest Aided HIV-Positive Orphans
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2006; B08

The Rev. Angelo D’Agostino, 80, a physician, psychiatrist and Jesuit priest who opened one of the first orphanages for abandoned HIV-positive children in Kenya, died Nov. 20 of cardiac arrest at the Karen Hospital in Nairobi. He had been hospitalized for a week with abdominal pain from diverticulitis and died after surgery.
Father D’Agostino, who practiced and taught psychiatry in Washington during the 1970s and ’80s, was called to a country with more than 1 million children whose parents have died of AIDS. Many of the children, often HIV-positive themselves, have been abandoned or left to roam through Kenya’s big-city slums.

He encountered the needs of Kenya’s children while serving on the board of governors for a large orphanage in 1991. When the orphanage began receiving scores of abandoned children who tested HIV-positive, Father D’Agostino suggested setting up a facility for them. The board opposed the idea, so in 1992, he founded the Nyumbani Orphanage, beginning with three HIV-positive children.

Today Nyumbani, or “home” in Swahili, shelters about 100 Kenyan children, from newborns to 23-year-olds.

The larger nonprofit organization, also called Nyumbani, includes Lea Toto (Swahili for “to raise the child”), a community-based program founded in 1998 to provide outreach services to HIV-positive children and their families in the Nairobi area. Nyumbani also has the most advanced blood diagnostic laboratory in Kenya.
At the time of his death, Father D’Agostino, an indefatigable fundraiser, had just returned from Rome and the United States, where he had solicited money for Nyumbani Village, a self-sustaining community to serve the orphans and elderly left behind by the “lost generation” of the AIDS pandemic. The goal of the village, which has plans for 100 houses, a school, a clinic and a community center, is to create new blended families for orphaned children under the care of elderly adults.

“It was difficult to say no to him, particularly because what he asked you to do were the kinds of things your conscience would bedevil you about if you said no,” said Benjamin L. Palumbo, a Washington attorney who serves as president of Nyumbani’s U.S. board of directors.

Father D’Agostino’s friends and orphanage supporters ran the political gamut, from former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Leahy called him “a living saint.”

Short and rotund, “Father D’Ag,” as some knew him, was quick to laugh but also had a temper, his friend James Desmond recalled. Desmond, former owner of a downtown bar called Beowulf’s, one of the priest’s haunts when he lived in Washington, recalled being with him in a meeting with congressional aides who were giving him the polite brushoff. When the priest realized what was happening, Desmond had to hustle him out the door before his temper got the best of him.

In 2001, Nyumbani became the first place in Africa to import deeply discounted AIDS drugs under an Indian pharmaceutical company’s program to make such drugs more affordable on the continent where most of the world’s AIDS patients live and die.

“I am sick and tired of doing funerals,” Father D’Agostino told The Washington Post, explaining why he was willing to defy national regulations and international patent rules to buy cheaper, generic AIDS drugs.

“It’s really the darker side of capitalism, the greed that is being manifest by these drug companies holding sub-Saharan Africa hostage,” he told The Post. “People are dying because they can’t afford their prices.”

He also sued the Kenyan government for its policy banning HIV-positive children from the nation’s public schools. He won that suit last year, which allowed more than 100,000 children to rejoin their classmates in schools across the country.

Angelo D’Agostino was one of six children born to Italian immigrants in Providence, R.I. His younger brother, Dr. Joseph D’Agostino of Fairfax, recalled that he had asthma as a child, so he spent a lot of time reading, making model airplanes and growing plants and flowers in the family’s back yard.

He received his undergraduate degree in chemistry and philosophy from St. Michael’s College in 1945 and his medical degree from Tufts University in 1949. He received a master of science degree in surgery from Tufts in 1953.

He served in the Air Force from 1953 to 1955 as chief of urology at Bolling Air Force Base. After attending a retreat with the Knights of Columbus, he decided to enter the priesthood in 1954, although the Jesuits at Georgetown asked him to take a year before making a final decision.

“The Jesuits couldn’t use a urologist or kidney stone specialist,” his brother recalled, “so they told him to go into psychiatry.”

After a psychiatric residency at Georgetown from 1959 to 1965 and further work at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute from 1962 to 1967, he became one of the first American Jesuits to be trained as a psychiatrist. (He liked to say he had “more degrees than a thermometer,” a nephew recalled.)

He was ordained in 1966, earlier than expected because the Jesuits were concerned that he was going to succumb to lupus, an illness he had battled his whole life.

He taught psychiatry at Georgetown University and George Washington University and in 1972 founded the Center for Religion and Psychiatry at the Washington Theological Union to promote dialogue between the two. From 1983 to 1987, he was in private practice in the District. A number of his clients were police officers, many whom he met over beers at Beowulf’s.

Father D’Agostino helped administer refugee centers in Thailand and East Africa in the 1980s, but it was the lost children of Kenya who captured his heart and wouldn’t let go. They called him “Faza.”

He retired when he turned 80, “but it was retirement with a small ‘r,’ ” Joe D’Agostino said. “He still went to the office every day, although he was happy he didn’t have to go to meetings anymore.”

He will be buried in Kenya. His brother…recalled that Father D’Agostino had only one regret about his adopted homeland: “He couldn’t grow good tomatoes over there. Being a good Italian, that was important to him.”


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