Robert Arpin, first Catholic priest to come out as gay and HIV-positive, was born in Chicopee, Massachusetts on August 10, 1946. Arpin, the youngest child, described his father as “a strong-willed man, proud and hardworking” and his mother, who considered Robert her favorite son, as a “strong woman able to bear up under strain.” Arpin, with two working parents, spent considerable time with his paternal grandmother. He considered her a “living saint” and he claimed that if God called him to the priesthood, he said it was “through the intermediary of her example.” In part, due to Arpin attending Catholic school his entire life, he decided to enter high school at the Hyacinthe Seminary in Quebec, Canada. For college, he enrolled at St. Thomas Seminary in Connecticut, which he described as being “run like a prison.”
However, Arpin recalled his most impactful years of education occurred at the Seminary of Our Lady of Angels in Albany, New York. He attended the school from the late 60s to the early 70s, a time of great social unrest across the United States. US intervention in South Asia, urban rebellions in response to police brutality and systemic neglect and the Catholic Church’s transformative Second Vatican Council engendered a milieu that profoundly revolutionized his perspective.
In 1972, his ordination and first mass took place on May 6 and 7, respectively. In the early 70s, he worked as a parish priest in Springfield, Massachusetts at St. Mary’s Church. While ministering at the parish, he also started a chaplaincy at Smith College where he encountered feminist thought and out lesbian women. During his initial assignment, he served on the Diocesan Liturgical Commission. In this period of near round-the-clock ministry, he learned about Dignity, a Catholic LGBTQ outreach group, where he “began a rich and active ministry to the gay community.” After a debilitating bout of hepatitis, challenges vis-a-vis his sexuality, and exhaustion from work, he took a leave of absence from active ministry and spent two years in San Francisco. He considered these years to be the “most growth-filled and concurrently the most painful.”
In the early 80s, he continued serving the LGBTQ community where he encountered his first AIDS patients. He volunteered with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Dignity San Francisco, Kairos House and the Shanti Project. Moreover, he would become a member of the AIDS Interfaith Network and the San Francisco AIDS Coalition. Along with his volunteer work with a wide array of organizations, he educated high school and college-age students, clergy, chaplains and congregations on HIV/AIDS. He participated in fundraising for United Way and spearheaded a retreat for persons living with AIDS.
Throughout the late 80s and 90s, Arpin continued to minister to persons with AIDS in San Francisco. He described living in the Bay Area during the early 90s as “living in a war zone.” Along with the intensity of loss and neglect, Arpin routinely felt tension within both Catholic and queer circles. “When I went public with my AIDS diagnosis…in a sense I came out of two closets. I told the Catholic Church that I was gay, which put me at odds with the Church’s moral teachings and didn’t make me very popular with some of the bishops. And I told the gay community that I was a priest. You know the Church isn’t very popular in the gay community for all its anti-gay and homophobic stands.”
Arpin was not the only Catholic priest to contract AIDS. In a popular three part series published by the Kansas City Star, the outlet reported on the silenced phenomenon of priests with AIDS. The articles reported on the church’s negligence and at times, retaliation towards priests who attempted to express their concerns. Priests feared losing their health insurance and according to Reverend Jim Mitulski, Arpin was threatened with this reprisal. Many in the Catholic hierarchy dismissed the report as reflective of the media’s anti-Catholicism.
The contested report claimed that Catholic priests contract AIDS at a rate four times the national average. However, the National Catholic AIDS Network and the Catholic League vehemently denounced these figures. Irrespective of the study’s methodology and overall validity, some priests, like Arpin, contracted HIV.
Arpin released his intimate and provocative memoir Wonderfully, Fearfully Made: Letters on Living with Hope,Teaching Understanding and Love from a Gay Catholic Priest with AIDS in 1993. On the cover of the memoir, Arpin chose an image of St. Francis with a leper to symbolize his belief that St. Francis saw himself reflected in the afflicted. He publicly detailed his HIV-positive status and sexuality in July 1987, a little over two months after his diagnosis. He was the first Catholic priest to announce both his HIV-positive status and gay identity.
He was interviewed by Hank Plante and the conversation was aired on national outlets. Arpin claimed reactions to his double-coming out story were predominantly positive. Nonetheless, Arpin’s bishop in Massachusetts communicated a bit of dismay and concern that his family would be harassed by the media. Arpin quipped that some are “disturbed to hear the truth that priests are human beings; that we are sexual; that some of us are gay; that we are saints, sinners, and lovers; that we can get AIDS.”
In 1991, Arpin wrote a letter on Gay Pride Day in San Francisco where he sat in the hospital and reflected on his sexuality. Throughout his priesthood the Church published a plethora of document commenting on the morality of homosexuality. In a widely circulated letter from 1986, considered “The Halloween Letter” in queer Catholic circles, Prefect Joseph Ratzinger wrote that homosexuality ought to be considered “an objective disorder.”
Arpin, recognizing the need to undo structural hate through written reflection, wrote about his sexuality journey while hearing the queer revelry occurring outside. “I believe that all sexuality and my sexuality is a gift from God. And since God doesn’t make junk, being gay is wonderful. We all need to feel good about ourselves, don’t we?”
When he first received his diagnosis in April 1987, Arpin was informed that he would die within 18 months. In 1995, Arpin passed away eight years after his diagnosis at the age of 48.
(This biographical statement written by Thomas Schwartz from the sources listed below. Photo from: http://andrejkoymasky.com/liv/fam/bioa3/arpin01.html)
Biography Date: December 2o22
Arpin, Robert L. 1993. Wonderfully, Fearfully Made: Letters on Living with Hope, Teaching Understanding, and Ministering with Love, from a Gay Catholic Priest with AIDS. Harper San Francisco.
Mcg, Robert, and Thomas J. 1995. “Robert Arpin, 48, Catholic Priest Who Announced He Was Gay (Published 1995).” The New York Times, May 25, 1995. https://www.nytimes.com/1995/05/25/obituaries/robert-arpin-48-catholic-priest-who-announced-he-was-gay.html.
Humm, Andy. 2000. “Brothers' Keeper - POZ.” POZ Magazine, June 1, 2000. https://www.poz.com/article/Brothers-Keeper-1359-7891.
Raymond, Kaymarion. 2016 "Father Bob." From Wicked to Wedded, Northampton's LGBTQ History--a work in progress. https://fromwickedtowedded.com/2016/06/03/father-bob/
Catholic (Roman) | Clergy Activist | AIDS | Author/editor | San Francisco | California
“Rev. Robert Arpin | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed June 06, 2023, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/robert-arpin.