Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Obituary: Father Angelo D'Agostino

The Times
December 12, 2006

Father Angelo D'Agostino
January 26, 1926 - November 20, 2006

Jesuit psychiatrist and physician who devoted his last years to the orphanage that he established in Kenya

Angelo D’Agostino was an American Jesuit priest who devoted the last 15 years of his life to looking after families in Kenya affected by Aids.

In 1991, while serving on the board of governors for a big orphanage, he observed that a large number of the children admitted were HIV-positive, and suggested setting up a special facility for them. But there was little support, so he decided to do it himself. The Nyumbani Orphanage (nyumbani means “home” in Swahili) was opened in a rented property the following year, with three abandoned babies as its first residents.

D’Agostino was angered by the lack of provision for such children in Africa: “We’re looking at 25 million orphans who have nothing to do but to look for food,” he said later. “Nobody there to help them. No shelter. No kind of protection. And just trying to survive because there won’t be any law that will be covering it.”

Using funds donated by the Jesuits and organisations in the US he expanded the orphanage. It now covers five acres, houses 100 children and has a health clinic, school and the most advanced blood-analysis laboratory in Kenya. Children who are HIV-positive are treated with antiretroviral therapy and cared for until they are self-reliant. Others who test positive for HIV at birth but are later found not to have it — antibodies taken into the system from the mother often cause this “false positive” — stay until guardians can be found for them.

When it was decided in 1998 that services should be expanded to cover other communities in Nairobi, another scheme, Lea Toto (“raise the child”), was instituted. It was designed to support children and their families in their own communities by providing basic medical care, counselling, spiritual guidance and education in self-help and preventing HIV infection. When it was given funding by USAID in 1999 it focused its energies on children in the Kangemi slums of Nairobi.

But D’Agostino was frustrated by his inability to do more to reduce the death toll. Part of the problem was that drug companies were permitted to retain their intellectual property rights even in poor countries, preventing other companies from manufacturing cheaper generic versions.

D’Agostino spoke out about what he called “the darker side of capitalism” — at one point calling on Tony Blair to intervene — but a change in the legislation looked unlikely, so he found an Indian pharmaceutical company willing to export heavily discounted generic Aids drugs and in 2001 breached regulations to get hold of them. Thanks to that and other shipments the number of deaths at Nyumbani was greatly reduced.

He fought another battle in 2004 when he sued the Kenyan Government for excluding HIV-positive children from schools. “Once they find the child is from Nyumbani, they find some sort of excuse like they’re too full, they don’t have any room or whatever,” he said. In winning the case he enabled more than 100,000 children to go back to school.

Angelo D’Agostino was born in 1926, in Providence, Rhode Island, one of six children of Italian immigrants, and educated at St Michael’s College, Vermont, where he read chemistry and philosophy, and Tufts University School of Medicine. He was awarded his master of science degree in surgery in 1953.

From 1953 to 1955 he served as chief of urology at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington. Inspired by a retreat with the Knights of Columbus, he afterwards joined the Jesuit order in Pennsylvania. (Despite their father’s antipathy to religion, four of the D’Agostino children pursued it, two as priests, one as a Christian Brother and another as a nun.) D’Agostino intended to become a missionary but was encouraged by his superiors to go into psychiatry. At the time there was conflict between Catholicism and psychiatry, and it was hoped that D’Agostino would do something to reconcile the two.

He held a residency in psychiatry at Georgetown University from 1959 to 1965 and trained at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute for five years from 1962. He was ordained in 1966, earlier than normal because of fears for his health. (He was suffering from lupus.) He then taught psychiatry at Georgetown University and was chief of inpatient services at George Washington University Hospital. In 1972 he founded the Centre for Religion and Psychiatry at the Washington Theological Union.

In 1980 he joined the Jesuit Refugee Service and went to Thailand to set up a camp. He was then posted to Kenya to co-ordinate the work of Jesuit priests and to establish an institute of psychiatry and religion. He had a private practice in psychiatry and psychoanalysis in Nairobi from 1987 to 1990.

A short, rotund, often laughing figure, D’Agostino was known as “Faza” or “Father D’Ag” and was much loved by the children at the orphanage.He called his years with them the happiest and most productive of his life.

His last initiative in Kenya, Nyumbani Village, addressed the fact that the middle generation, who would normally care for both their children and their parents, had been almost wiped out by Aids. The Kitui district county council donated 1,000 acres of agricultural land on which grandchildren and grandparents — up to 1,600 people — will soon be able to live together.

The Kenyan President, Mwai Kibaki, was among those who attended D’Agostino’s requiem Mass at Consolata Shrine parish, in Nairobi.

Father Angelo D’Agostino, founder of Nyumbani Orphanage, Kenya, was born on January 26, 1926. He died on November 20, 2006, aged 80