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Sacred Grounds: Reflecting on Life and Legacy at the AIDS Memorial Garden

Melbourne’s AIDS Memorial Garden is a place of quiet reflection on the grounds of a hospital that cared for many at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The garden has recently been refreshed, and its custodians are encouraging people to learn more about this little-known spot.

Established by Thorne Harbour Health (then Victorian AIDS Council) volunteers in 1988, the garden commemorates the many people who died from an AIDS defining illness at the nearby Fairfield Hospital. The hospital treated the most HIV/AIDS patients in Victoria, including John Caleo, who many would remember from Timothy Conigrave’s memoir, Holding the Man.

Fairfield, officially called the Queen’s Memorial Infectious Diseases Hospital, was the first infectious disease hospital in Australia. Nurses treated and tried to cure known infectious diseases like Scarlet Fever and Diphtheria. When the first cases of HIV came along, they were dumbfounded.

No one knew how HIV was transmitted in the early days of the disease and no treatments existed. Despite this, nurses helped patients however they could, and began to train volunteers on infectious diseases and infection controls. This would typically involve six weeks of training at the hospital, followed by in-home care that would become the basis of Thorne Harbour’s Community Support program.

There was terrible stigma for people living with HIV (PLHIV) in those times, and for the staff and volunteers who worked with them. Fairfield was the exception to this stigma, where patients were treated with dignity, respect, and care.

Staff and volunteers developed a collaborative centre of expertise at Fairfield. And through the hospital’s culture of care, a safe space for PLHIV was created. John Hall, Thorne Harbour’s current Partnerships Manager, was also a volunteer at the hospital in 1990. His reflections on those days are invaluable.

A very safe space, a home away from home, where nurses and volunteers worked together.

John Hall

With many churches at that time refusing to hold funerals for people who died from AIDS, the garden and its associated chapel became a vital place for loved ones to express their grief. Many men had their ashes scattered in the garden because they had no other final resting place.

Several peacocks roamed the garden, including an albino male. According to John Hall, patients loved to spend time in the garden amongst the birds, and this albino always knew when to put on his display for those most in pain and closest to death.

When Fairfield eventually closed in 1996 it had already been up for closure twice. With other hospitals receiving new equipment and the introduction of HAARTs (Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapies), Fairfield could no longer keep up with the changing landscape.

When the hospital did close, there was enormous protest. Patients chained themselves to the front gates – an entrance that once stood as a symbol of an uncertain future when people arrived at the hospital with trepidation and fear.

After 10 years of dormancy and disrepair, Melbourne Polytechnic took over the whole site and approached Thorne Harbour with an offer to take care of the garden and help its new custodians understand the history of the hospital.

Since then, several working bees have brought the garden back to a state of beauty. It’s now planted with endangered native species and Melbourne Polytechnic horticulture students have started a nursery.

The garden was always about protecting, nurturing, and safeguarding people. Now it’s about preserving nature too, and the younger generation can continue to learn from this special place

John Hall

Thorne Harbour regularly returns to the garden, offering historical walks at points throughout the year, including World AIDS Day and during Midsumma Festival. Visit this special place on your own or look out for our next walk in our events calendar.


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