Catholic HIV/AIDS activist in Pee Dee passes away



FLORENCE — Owen O’Connor Schweers, a parishioner of St. Ann Church and member of the National Catholic AIDS Network, passed away Sept. 15 at the age of 41. He was preceded in death by a sister Peggy Schweers-Jones of Atlanta, Ga., who also died of HIV/AIDS in 1992.

Last week, his mother, Kay, talked about her son’s life.

Born in Savannah, Ga., Schweers was formerly employed in the press office of New York City Mayor David Dinkins, before moving to Florence in 1992. He held a degree in mass communications from Powson State University.

“He had worked for the state of Maryland as a press person with the Department of Highways working with the governor on highway openings and things like that,” she said. “He moved from New York to Florence after he got his HIV diagnosis. My daughter, Peggy, was diagnosed with HIV in 1984.”

Following his sister’s death, Schweers said her son decided that was going to become an activist.

“He was on the first board of Hope for the Pee Dee, which provides free services for HIV patients at its clinic. He also worked with state and local teams, going to Washington and working with legislators on getting more funding for AIDS, particularly on a local level,” she said.

Schweers was also a certified AIDS/HIV instructor for the Red Cross. “He talked with schools. He talked with students. He talked with nurses. He talked with medical people. He went all over the Pee Dee talking with groups about HIV and AIDS and putting a face on the disease,” she said.

Reggie Scott, an AIDS educator with S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, worked with Schweers. “He helped establish the first World AIDS Day Celebration here in Florence, and we’ve been doing that now for 10 years,” Scott said. “We’ve had it in black churches. We’ve had it in white churches. The mayor does a commendation and recognizes World AIDS Day in recognition of the fact that these people are here.”

He added, “Owen was a caring person. He wanted to do a lot to educate folks, to prevent it, to make a difference.”

In addition to Schweer’s activity with the National Catholic AIDS Network, he was a member of the S.C. Ecumenical AIDS Networks, and had worked for the establishment of an S.C. Catholic AIDS Network.

“That is what he had met with Bishop Baker for,” his mother said. “The ecumenical network was Catholic and Episcopalian and Lutheran. He worked strongly with that. He was very influential in a twice-a-year retreat in Rock Hill for AIDS patients. He was on the planning committee for it for several years.”

The Rev. Christopher Clements of Ridgeway, pastor of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Fairfield County, knew Schweers from the Rock Hill retreats. He said, “I believe him to be a man of great faith and great commitment, and I counted him as a special friend.”

Schweers said her son was a strong Catholic; he was a daily communicant at St. Ann’s, and that his faith has helped sustain her.

“Owen had a very strong faith. One of the things he wrote in 1995 was his funeral service; the prayers he wanted; the songs he wanted. All I’m doing now is writing down and putting into place the things that he had already set up. He wanted as his epitaph, ‘I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith.”

The liturgy was held Sept. 28 St. Ann’s with a “Going Home” celebration at his request in the parish hall. During the Mass, candles flickered as participants passed along a flame between the pews.

“He didn’t want weeping and moaning. He wanted a going home celebration. He promised to be there,” she said.

Schweers said she has been able to cope with the death of not only one child, but two children who died from AIDS, in part, through the total support of the congregation at St. Ann’s.

“The thing that has sustained me is the complete support of the entire family at St. Ann’s. I mean everyone at that church, not just now, but all along. The congregation knew him. He was a reader at the 8 o’clock Mass and has been for years and years. Everyone in the church who knew him not only knew him, but loved him, and knew that his faith was just complete and unshakeable.”

Father Michael Corrigan, pastor at St. Ann’s, said, “Owen was a man of faith and a very fine person. He was an integral part of this community. The thing I admired most about him is that he was a person of integrity and faith, and he was a person who accepted who he was and accepted that as God’s gift to him, and as a result of that, he was a gift to his community. He put a face on people with AIDS that awakened people in our community and made them more conscious and aware of the richness of God’s diversity in his creation. We are an inner-city parish that is very diverse. We draw from all over the city, and we celebrate our differences here. We appreciate them and like that. He was a part of that.”

Schweers said she has asked God why this has had to happen to her, but that her son and daughter never asked, “Why me?”

“Peggy said it once,” Schweers recalled, “She said, ‘I am not dying. I am living.'”

She said her son managed to maintain his independence until close to the end of his life, when he moved into her home and entered the Hospice program.

“The Hospice people were just absolutely incredible. They worked to make him comfortable. Finally about 3 o’clock Sunday morning, he could not get out of bed to walk. It meant that he could not get out of bed to go to the bathroom, and that really drove him nuts. It was shortly after that he went basically into a coma.”

She then recounted, “Sheila (his sister) was with him. He opened his eyes. He was looking. He knew he wasn’t seeing anything in the room. But he opened his eyes, and she just leaned down and whispered in his ear. She said, ‘Bro, what do you see?’ And Owen said, ‘Christ Jesus.'”

Memorials may be made to Hope for the Pee Dee, 514 S. Dargan St., Florence, SC 29506, or McLeod Hospice of the Pee Dee 555 E. Cheves St., Florence, SC 29506.