OpEd: Love in the Face of Death: The Message of Father Bill

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“Surrounded by death, Father Bill Collins embraces life. Confronted by anger, he preaches forgiveness.

And faced with an ending inevitable from the very start, he encourages acceptance and faith and most of all, love.”

From a Sun-Sentinel article about, December 11, 1994

 

Quietly, and in a hospice not unlike the many he served, a titan passed in our community this past week. 

For many of you, Father Bill Collins was the smiling priest who shared time with you at Sawgrass Lanes during a bowling tournament. But this was a man who spent a large part of his life holding the hand of the dying.

Sometimes, we forget what AIDS was, when. Let us not today.

Poverello and Father Bill opened their doors to Broward County three decades ago in Pompano Beach.  Overcoming all obstacles and bucking the tides so marshalled against him, Father Bill created and forged a food bank and nutritional facility, now cemented and anchored in Wilton Manors.

Poverello’s inviting website talks positively of the thousands of people they have served over the decades. Most assuredly, they have, and still do.  Indeed, I hope you will all join and support them at their June 12 anniversary party.

The website shares Poverello’s missions and goals simply, explaining they are “providing nutritious food with understanding, respect and love for individuals living with critical and chronic illnesses.”

Poverello now has a full-time staff, generous volunteers and a mission to reach out to so many. Let’s remember that it started with one man’s vision to do so. Father Bill became the inspiration, and his words and deeds have led to a mission that is now an institution; forever a part of our lives,

But there was a time when AIDS was a death sentence, and Father Bill a lonely messenger. There was a day when HIV patients were lepers. There was a moment, in our nation’s history, when concern did not exist, care was not there, and outreach unheard of. Then there was Father Bill.

Patients living with AIDS, lucky enough to leave a hospital, needed help, food, clothing, nutrition, assistance. In the 1980’s, and again in the 1990’s, Father Bill was there, often alone, so much so that it would not be unusual for him to preside over four funerals in a single day. 

By the year 2000, he had presided over 2000 of them. In July of 1994, the Diocese of Miami freed him from his duties as a parish priest, and he came to us. He came to Poverello, and he never left, remaining a robed warrior for justice.

At the time, he told a reporter, Michael Young, that "We're given such a magnificent opportunity, those of us at Poverello, to be able to be caring persons…and if we do that, then we can pick up the spark that filled these lives and bring the flame together and make this a better world. It's a challenge, a simple challenge of life. If you accept, it's wonderful. And if you don't, how sad."

A man who suffered his first heart attack in 1962, at age 31, and went on to smoke too many packs of Benson & Hedges daily, Father Bill became a voice for the LGBT community and AIDS patients when we had no voices, an unsung hero who would soon be recognized by many. 

Father Bill, a long way from his home in Canada, found that his work gained public acclaim and local recognition. The organization he gave life to under the name of ‘the poor little one’ became the little train that could. He saw illness, and sought to end it. He saw health, and tried to inspire it.

Yes, he had been a priest at St. Coleman Parrish in Pompano. Yes, he had been the chaplain at Imperial Point Medical Center. But Father Bill’s life would change directions with Florida AIDS walks and bowling tournaments to fight hunger. He emerged as a local hero, honored by everyone from Toastmaster’s groups to our Pride Center. In fact, he was the 1999 recipient of the Pride Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Father Bill would win many more accolades in his lifetime, including the Sun Sentinel Publisher’s Award for outstanding community service, in 1995.” Said Jim Smith, their vice president at the time, “Father Bill has persevered and accomplished great things. It does our souls good to be reminded that such things are possible."

Father Bill, my friends, did indeed do great things, and he was solemnly laid to rest in a moving ceremony this past Monday afternoon at Assumption Catholic Church in Lauderdale by the Sea. 

Mark down that day, for Father Bill was not just a part of the gay community history of South Florida. He helped make and shape it. He did so with dignity and grace, and leaves us with a treasure forever etched into the soul of our community.

 


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