Fr. Bruce Cwiekowski meets staff at a Uganda health clinic established by Fr. Freddy Ocun. (Courtesy Fr. Bruce Cwiekowski)
Fr. Bruce Cwiekowski meets staff at a Uganda health clinic established by Fr. Freddy Ocun. (Courtesy Fr. Bruce Cwiekowski)
A priest veteran of AIDS ministry in Portland inspired another Catholic clergyman to improve HIV outreach at a clinic in remote northwest Uganda. Dec. 1 was World AIDS Day.

Father Bruce Cwiekowski came to Oregon from Massachusetts in 1991 to lead the Archdiocese of Portland’s new ministry to people with HIV and AIDS. Father Cwiekowski walked through life and death with hundreds of patients, offering social services, health care and compassion. Now a priest of the archdiocese, he will retire Dec. 31 as head of pastoral care at Providence Portland Medical Center in Northeast Portland.

Father Freddy Ocun, a native of Uganda, came to Oregon in 2005 and now is head of pastoral care at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Northwest Portland. A member of the Apostles of Jesus religious community, Father Ocun long wanted to be a missionary. But he always remembered his home village of Nebbi, population 5,000. There, he helped establish a health clinic, in honor of his father, two sisters and nephew who had died of preventable diseases like malaria. Funded by Ohio philanthropist Dave Showers, the Showers Foundation Health Center opened in Nebbi in 2007.

Now Father Ocun is setting up a section of the clinic to serve patients with HIV and AIDS. The wing is named after his friend and colleague Father Cwiekowski, a longtime supporter of the clinic who has even visited the East African site. The building is there but needs to be outfitted.

The overall clinic serves about 20,000 people spread out over 1,200 square miles. Many people are HIV positive.

Where Oregon was with AIDS when Father Cwiekowski came 28 years ago, northwest Uganda is now.

“There is lots of stigma,” said Father Ocun. “People are afraid to talk about their status and afraid to get a checkup.”

Medications that keep people with AIDS alive in the developed world are hard to come by. “If you have AIDS in Uganda, you are a walking corpse,” Father Ocun said.

He hopes the new wing and AIDS initiative will teach the best way to avoid AIDS — faithfulness to one’s spouse. He also wants patients, including children, to get tested for HIV sooner so that treatment can work better. The separate wing will offer more privacy for patients, something hard to find at government health facilities.

In Uganda last year, there were 1.6 million people living with HIV, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS. About 5.7% of adults were infected with HIV and there were 53,000 new infections during the year and about 23,000 AIDS-related deaths.

Scores of people have already come to the new wing in Nebbi. Father Ocun sadly recalls two 5-year-olds who are HIV positive, probably infected at birth. He hopes the clinic can make their lives long and healthy.

But that’s a long shot. Even if advanced anti-HIV medications are available, the symptoms may kill patients before the drugs take effect. That’s because medications like anti-diarrhea compounds, common in the United States, are rare in rural Uganda.

Nutrition is poor, a real problem for HIV patients. Father Cwiekowski observed polluted water in Uganda that would wreak havoc with weakened immune systems.

“I am thinking of the little kids, the babies,” Father Cwiekowski said. During his visit to Nebbi, he met many children who tug at his heart even now. He hopes his friends and supporters will come through with $10,000 to fund the new outreach.

In addition to testing and prevention, the clinic will care for HIV and AIDS patients. Father Ocun likens them to the lepers in the Gospel stories, outcasts who should be welcomed back as citizens. The clinic will promote clean water and healthy food.

“With good care, HIV people can live for a long time, transforming the community,” Father Ocun said. “This population does not want to be silenced.”

Father Cwiekowski hopes that someday the clinic, now for outpatients, may have beds for people with AIDS. He calls the clinic “a beautiful model of Jesus.”

The two head chaplains have worked together for a long time. Father Cwiekowski started at Providence Portland 15 years ago, and Father Ocun at St. Vincent 14 years ago. They meet every couple of weeks for mutual support and an exchange of ideas.

After retirement, Father Cwiekowski will begin a sabbatical and then help out at parishes in western Oregon. He credits the late Cardinal William Levada and Mary Jo Tully, former chancellor of the Archdiocese of Portland, for getting the Portland AIDS ministry going and supporting it faithfully.

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