AIDS Memorial Quilt panel comes home to Philly for first time

AIDS Memorial Quilt panel comes home to Philly for first time

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Elizabeth Coffey-Williams and John DiCarlo created a panel for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, a national collection of quilt squares commemorating those who died from HIV/AIDS. Lou DiJinio, Coffey-Williams’ best friend and DiCarlo’s partner, died March 24, 1994.

While DiJinio lived in Philadelphia, the quilt panel has never been in the city until now. With help from AIDS Fund Philly Assistant Director Terrie Hawkins, Coffey-Williams was able to bring the quilt square back home. Through tears, Coffey-Williams said she will be “really happy” to see it again.

“It will be really hard but I will be really happy that my Louie is home, that he’s coming home to Philadelphia at least one more time,” Coffey-Williams said.

DiCarlo, who now lives in Tennessee with his husband, Michael Filip DiCarlo, also plans to make a trip to the city to view the panel.

In addition to it being in Philadelphia for the first time, this moment also holds more significance for the two. Coffey-Williams noted seeing the quilt square combined with the squares of thousands of others at a 1996 display in Washington, D.C.

“That was the last time I ever saw it,” Coffey-Williams said.

Battling AIDS

DiCarlo and DiJinio lived together in Philadelphia until 1990, when DiCarlo’s career in the hair and makeup industry brought him to New York City. However, DiJinio was diagnosed shortly thereafter. After assessing the financial costs of living in New York, DiCarlo and DiJinio decided to move back to Philadelphia.

“I had [also] gotten very busy and I had bookings that were 10 days long and a lot of times, I’d be down in Florida for two weeks and I thought, Well, if he gets to the sick point, I can’t be doing all of this traveling and who in the hell is going to take care of him in New York for me?”

DiCarlo effectively gave up his career to take care of his partner but he does not regret that choice. 

“My decision was made on pure love,” DiCarlo said. “It had nothing to do with me. I did what I thought was the right thing to do.”

DiJinio died at age 35 and DiCarlo took care of him until his final days.

“I was absolutely devastated and was for a very long time,” DiCarlo said, noting that DiJinio’s health went downhill quickly, and then he was “gone rather fast.”

“I was left in a shock, and when you’re taking care of someone for a good year, and when they get to that ending process where you’re the only one they have left and they depend on you for everything, a very special bond forms,” DiCarlo said through tears. 

Making the quilt panel

Coffey-Williams and DiCarlo began talking about ways to commemorate DiJinio shortly after his death.

“During one of our conversations, John told me that he wanted to make a panel for the NAMES Project for Lou and I said, ‘Fine, I’m a facilitator but as a facilitator, I don’t just make the panel; you make the panel because it’s a healing process,’” Coffey-Williams said, noting her role in the NAMES Project. 

The two of them worked on it together over the phone, with Coffey-Williams living in Rockford, Ill., and DiCarlo in Philadelphia. 

“I said, ‘I don’t know how to quilt and work the fabric’ and she said, ‘Trust me, I can walk you through the process on the phone,’” DiCarlo said.

DiCarlo said he set out to make a coffin-lid-sized panel that honored DiJinio’s love for the holidays and the four seasons. He framed related images around DiJinio’s name, birthdate and death date. 

“In the back of my mind, I thought, This has to be the prettiest gravestone ever,” DiCarlo rcalled.

DiCarlo shipped the pinned fabrics off to Coffey-Williams, who would be responsible for stitching the quilt together. She said she “had no idea that he was going to send me something that looked like the Sistine Chapel of quilts.”

“I was just Godsmacked at how beautiful it was and I knew that I really had to up my game and really do it proud and take what John did and quilt it,” Coffey-Williams said. 

Putting it on display 

After they made the quilt, Coffey-Williams contacted the NAMES Project to coordinate a display. She helped fund it by hosting a benefit concert in Rockford’s Memorial Hall. It then went on to be displayed at a Chicago Art Institute show. However, Coffey-Williams, who has since moved back to Philadelphia, is most proud of it coming back “home.” 

“There are many people in Philadelphia who knew and loved [DiJinio],” she said. “So I’m really happy that I had one small part in it being here. I have been forever proud of the fact that I had a part in making his panel.”

DiJinio’s panel will be available for viewing on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, at William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. Coffey-Williams is also in the process of coordinating a panel display and a screening of the film “Philadelphia” in which DiJinio appeared as an extra in a party scene dressed as a Campbell’s Soup can. The event will take place on a to-be-determined date at John C. Anderson Apartments, 251 S. 13th St.

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