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C. Barbour, 72; AIDS Ministry Opened Doors

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Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Carroll Barbour, a retired Episcopal priest who transformed a stodgy Hollywood church into a thriving spiritual haven for people with HIV and AIDS, died Tuesday at his home in Coto de Caza from complications of a pulmonary disorder. He was 72.

Barbour became rector of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Hollywood in 1986, when AIDS was beginning to ravage the community. He opened the church doors to people dying of the disease at a time when few places welcomed them.

Until Barbour arrived, St. Thomas was no exception. His embrace of people with HIV and AIDS angered longtime parish members who tried, but failed, to have him removed. Some of those parishioners subsequently left St. Thomas.

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But soon the pews of the Gothic-style church on Hollywood Boulevard were even fuller than before, attracting families with children, as well as a large number of gay men and women, many of whom came from denominations where they had felt rejected.

“Carroll Barbour’s pastoral work with people with HIV and AIDS was really groundbreaking,” said the Rev. Ian Elliott Davies, who succeeded Barbour as rector. “He stood up to the prejudice and said the message of the Gospel is we should welcome everyone.”

Barbour spent 40 years in the Episcopal Church before retiring in 2000. Two years ago, he became a Roman Catholic and hoped to be accepted as a priest in a Roman Catholic church, but he became too ill to proceed with his plans, said Bob Wilson, a close friend.

He will be buried privately in Dunn, N.C. A memorial service in Los Angeles will be held later.

Memorial donations may be sent to the C.B. Wilson Foundation for Adolescents for the Carroll C. Barbour Fund, 443 W. Santa Elena Road, Palm Springs, CA 92262.

At the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Barbour was one of few priests of any denomination in Los Angeles who ministered to people with AIDS and HIV. He presided over three or four funerals a week and visited hundreds of sick parishioners every month.

Barbour established support groups for patients and their families. He marshaled church members to pack up to 200 lunches a week for AIDS and HIV patients at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.

When parishioners with the disease died, he buried their ashes in an AIDS chapel that he dedicated to the memory of Blessed Damien of Molokai, who ministered to lepers in Hawaii. He started an AIDS memorial book that listed the names of people from around the world and read from it every week.

He also spoke from the pulpit about “how one lived with a plague,” church member Ron Hartwig recalled, and addressed not only those who had AIDS but their loved ones and others around them.

“How do you make the church relevant in today’s very hectic environment, how can you take what is often portrayed as old-fashioned biblical text and make it come alive in our everyday lives? That was an area that was very important to him,” Hartwig said this week.

Barbour, a native of Erwin, N.C., had felt drawn to the priesthood since childhood but resisted the calling for years. Later, he considered becoming a monk after going on a retreat at Mt. Calvary monastery in Santa Barbara. But he fell in love with his childhood sweetheart, Maryann Westbrook, and married her in 1953.

He eventually decided to become a priest in the Episcopal church, which allows its priests to be married. After three years in the Navy, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Occidental College in 1956 and a master’s of divinity from General Theological Seminary in New York City in 1959. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1960.

In 1965, in the heat of the civil rights movement, he was assigned to a church in Georgia. At a time when the Ku Klux Klan still operated openly, he welcomed a group of black college students into his congregation.

The consequences, for Barbour, were ugly.

Several Klansmen attacked him outside the church. “They hit me and beat me to a pulp, then shoved me under a car,” he recalled in an interview with The Times a few years ago. “But I had to show them they couldn’t silence me. So the next day, I drank three jiggers of bourbon and went to church like nothing happened.”

He was transferred to Kansas soon afterward, but he did not stop drinking. By the time he arrived in Los Angeles in 1970, he was an alcoholic. He eventually joined Alcoholics Anonymous and took his last drink in 1974.

Later, he would invite 12-step recovery groups such as AA to hold their meetings at St. Thomas. Every year from the pulpit he would celebrate the anniversary of his sobriety with the entire congregation.

Barbour served as rector at Episcopal churches in San Marino, Long Beach and Eagle Rock before moving to St. Thomas 17 years ago. At the time, the Hollywood parish was “just 40 little gray heads, people that were scared to death of the gay community,” he said. “I came with an open-door policy saying anybody could come to my church. That first year was hell.”

A campaign to remove him collapsed only after the bishop of the Los Angeles diocese intervened and decided that Barbour should stay.

Once that matter was settled, membership began to explode. St. Thomas’ confirmation classes soon were among the largest in the diocese, filled with Jews, Mormons, Baptists, Roman Catholics and others who had felt shunned in their denominations. Some of the new members were parents of parishioners who had died of AIDS who came for their sons’ requiems and stayed.

Barbour carried out his ministry to the sick and dying while facing painful struggles of his own. His wife of 33 years died of an aneurysm in 1986, the year he started at St. Thomas.

Five years later, his oldest son, John, died of AIDS.

His survivors include two sons, Hugh and Philip.

In the face of so much suffering, Barbour said his ministry became “an outlet for the grief.”

When he celebrated an emotional final Mass at St. Thomas before retiring, 500 people filled the pews.

“There is one thing all human beings have in common. No matter what race, color, sex,” he said. “We all suffer. And suffering bonds people. So, in a strange way, I think all that suffering brought us together.”


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