In 1994, a year after Tommy Sexton, star of Codco and The Wonderful Grand Band, died of AIDS in St. John’s, aged 36, he was posthumously awarded a Gemini for writing and acting. His mother, Sara Sexton, flew to Toronto to accept the award on his behalf. While in the city, she toured Casey House, Canada’s first standalone treatment facility for people with HIV/AIDS, which opened in 1988. “She said, ‘I want this,’ ” said her daughter Mary Sexton, a filmmaker.
So she made it happen.
Thanks to Ms. Sexton’s advocacy, the Tommy Sexton Centre opened in St. John’s in 2006. The $1.4-million unisex facility, administered by the AIDS Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador, includes four single units, two double units and eight emergency beds. Along with temporary housing, there are counselling and referral services, with nurse practitioners and social workers, a needle exchange program and even a laundry. It helps more than 1,200 people a year. It is funded by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador, private donations and through an annual fundraiser.
It was not just about treating AIDS, but also destigmatizing the disease. Ms. Sexton talked openly of her son’s diagnosis. “[Tommy] came to me and he brought me flowers,” she told The Telegram. “He said, ‘I have something to tell you.’ All I could think of was drugs. But he said, ‘I’m HIV positive.’ All I could think of was he’s going to die. I couldn’t get past that. … I said, ‘Now, don’t worry. Because, no matter what they say, you’re going to be all right. Because I’m going to pray so hard.’ ”
At that time, few people would discuss the topic openly. “Even when Tommy got sick and died, people were thinking, ‘Well that’s a gay thing, you know,’ ” Ms. Sexton told The Express in 2002. “I even had friends who wouldn’t mention it because it was unmentionable. And I suppose that’s understandable, isn’t it? But when it’s your child, you know, it’s a whole new thing. You cope with it as best you can. You’re hoping people will understand, but it comes to the point when you don’t worry about them understanding because your biggest worry is your child and whether he’s going to live or die or suffer. You don’t want him to suffer.”
Additionally there was a lot of judgment surrounding how people contracted HIV/AID, whether it was through sexual activity or blood transfusions. Ms. Sexton didn’t have much time for that either. “What a trivial question to ask.”
Ms. Sexton regularly visited patients at the TSC, sitting and chatting with them. A few years ago, when her energy for bedside visits started to flag, she began hooking afghans for the patients, each with a note signed “From Tommy’s Mom.”
A volunteer into her 90s, she received the inaugural Memorial University of Newfoundland Alumni Award for Outstanding Community Service in 2002. She was also awarded the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2014.
A devout Catholic, in her sadness and fear she leaned on her faith. As she told CBC News, “I think I’ve learned a lot of tolerance for an awful lot of stuff in the world.” And her consistent message was, “I think we can’t live without a sense of humour.” As for dying, “I think about it every day. I think there’s a wonderful place waiting, if I can get in. And besides Tommy is up there and I know Tommy can make even God laugh.”
She died at her home in St. John’s on Feb. 28 after a series of mini-strokes.
Sara Rita Yetman was born Jan. 25, 1923, in St. Mary’s, St. Mary’s Bay. Her parents were Anastasia (née Molloy) and William Joseph Yetman. Her father was a fisherman and her mother “had all the remedies and midwifed the babies,” Mary Sexton said.
Sara had nine brothers and one sister and was the second youngest. “I wasn’t patient when I was a small child because I was a girl among so many men and I had to stand up for myself,” she told CBC News in 2018. As she expanded on in The Telegram, “I grew up with nine brothers and one sister. I was always on the defensive. My father was always saying, ‘Don’t you go answering back them boys.' Because men couldn’t be tormented in those days.”
What she termed impatience others might call determination. At 17, she came into St. John’s to board and study at Littledale College, then studied at Memorial College, graduating from its teachers’ training program in 1944.
In 1945 she met Edward (Ned) Sexton, a school inspector visiting St. Mary’s – both his looks and his car caught her eye – and they married June, 1946, in St. Mary’s. After the wedding, they travelled by train and then ferry to Fogo Island to meet the groom’s family of Sextons, who had been unable to attend the ceremony.
A mother of nine, she still taught all while her children were growing up, including adult night school at Gonzaga, and Grades 1 to 3 at St. Bonaventure’s College, where enrolment was so high they put the student desks in the auditorium and she taught from the stage.
Her husband, Ned, was short-tempered and liked to drink. He had a confrontational relationship with their son Tommy, whose homosexuality he had difficulty accepting, as noted in Mary Sexton’s 2001 documentary Tommy... A Family Portrait. It’s clear Ned would have preferred that all his children were heterosexual. But he also called Tommy “the most versatile that Newfoundland will ever produce,” and went on to say, “Probably I’m inclined to brag a little.”
Tommy Sexton wrote an autobiographical film called Adult Children of Alcoholics: The Musical, which went into production in November, 1993, but was halted because of his illness.
Sara Sexton retired in 1979, though as an AIDS activist she continued to visit high-school classes across Newfoundland and Labrador to increase awareness of, and compassion for, those affected by the disease.
The Sextons were avid volunteers, and their many causes included assisting the Vietnamese refugees who came to Newfoundland and Labrador in the 1970s, as well as Elizabeth House for Single Mothers, Meals on Wheels, the Kiwanis of Grenfell and their parish of Mary Queen of Peace.
Ever active, Ms. Sexton wrote letters by hand to the dispersed youngest generation of her family, and played Scrabble and cribbage. Not much interested in material things, she once told The Telegram if she won the lottery she would take care of her children and grandchildren and then might buy herself “a bit of clothing.” She celebrated her 95th birthday by going bowling.
Predeceased by Tommy, her husband, Edward (on Dec. 3, 1999), and all her siblings, she leaves her children Edwina, Gary, Marty, Marina, Ed, Herb, Mary and Sara, as well as many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.