Boston Maryknoll honored for Kenyan AIDS ministry

BOSTON—For the past 30 years, Boston native Father Edward J. Phillips, MM has served as a missionary in East Africa. For the last 13 years he has focused his ministry on those suffering from the effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“I have been asked more than once if I find the work depressing and my answer all the time is just the opposite,” the Maryknoll missioner told The Pilot. “It is invigorating to be given the opportunity to serve and minister to those who at times feel that they are forgotten and rejected by others.”

At an Oct. 19 ceremony, he was honored by his alma mater, Boston College, with the Alumni Award of Excellence in the field of health care for establishing AIDS clinics in some of the poorest sections of Nairobi, Kenya.

In 1993 Father Phillips developed the Archdiocese of Nairobi Eastern Deanery AIDS Relief Program after witnessing the devastation caused by the AIDS epidemic. According to a 2004 study conducted by the World Health Organization, it is estimated that 1.2 million Kenyans are infected with the HIV virus, with the rate of infection nearly double in urban areas such as Nairobi.

When Father Phillips began his program many Nairobi-area parishes were seeing the residents of their area devastated by the effects of HIV. Thousands were sick or dying with nowhere to turn for help or assistance.

In response, Father Phillips began training small groups of Catholics in seven parishes located in one of Nairobi’s largest slum areas with a population of over 800,000 people.

With the aid of these “small Christian communities” of volunteers, Father Phillips, who is managing director of the program, has been able to care for more than 40,000 HIV/AIDS patients.

These volunteers “live out their baptismal calling” by ministering to the poor regardless of their religion, he said.

According to Father Phillips, when the program was initiated, “we were viewed as angels of death since most of our patients were terminally ill and all we could do was offer them end of life care.”

Yet, he said, “over the last three years we have been able to take major steps forward with the introduction of anti-retroviral care for our patients.”

“From the view of being angels of death we are now known as angels of life by keeping patients alive and families intact. Because of parents taking anti-retroviral drugs, a child now has the chance of being raised by his [or] her parents instead of becoming an orphan,” he added.

“Right now conditions are worse [for the poor] than a few years ago because of corruption,” Father Phillips explained. Because of a high rate of unemployment, most residents of the slums can only find day labor, “and only upon occasion are they even hired.”

Father Phillips’ program is now the largest individual supplier of anti-retroviral treatment (ART) in the Nairobi Province, due in part to a federal grant Bush administration.

“At present we have 4,000 patients receiving ART with an additional 2,200 patients not yet enrolled on the drugs. We offer both pediatric and adult ART,” Father Phillips reported. In addition, more than 3,000 people get tested every month, he added.

The Eastern Deanery AIDS Relief Program also conducted the national pilot study for diagnostic testing and counseling in relation to tuberculosis. The program was so effective, it has been adopted as the government protocol.

In addition to his work in Kenya, Father Phillips also serves as a consultant for the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, a position he was appointed to by Pope John Paul II in 2001. He also serves on the National Steering Committee for the HIV/Tuberculosis Ministry of Health for Kenya and is the African representative to the International Catholic Health Association.

Born in Boston in 1946, Father Phillips graduated from Catholic Memorial High School in West Roxbury. He was ordained a Maryknoll priest in 1974, and first traveled to Africa in 1977, where he was assigned to Tanzania. He transferred to Kenya in 1989 and served as assistant regional superior until 1998.

The Alumni Award of Excellence is an annual award given to Boston College alumni in the fields of the arts and humanities, commerce, education, health care, law, public service, religion and science. It was established by the Alumni Association National Board of Directors in the early 1970s in order to broaden the opportunities for alumni recognition.