The Diva of Dorchester
By Kevin Cullen, Globe Columnist

The woman was fading, her breath growing shallower, raspier. AIDS had ravaged her body and tortured her mind, and all that mind could think of was the young son she was about to leave behind.

Anne Burns was there, sitting at her side, holding the woman’s bony, shrunken hand.

“Promise me,’’ the woman said,“you’ll take care of my son.’’

And Anne Burns did. After the woman died, she loved that boy as her own, as she loved all of the AIDS babies in Boston’s inner city.

“My mother was the mother to the motherless,’’ Katie Burns said, recalling that deathbed scene from some 20 years ago.

Some people talk about redemption; Anne Burns lived it, until she had no life left to give. She died last week, too soon, at 61.

When she picked herself off the streets, out of the back alleys where tricks were turned and drugs were sold, she turned her back on heroin and promised Jesus Christ she would follow him, wherever he took her. And he took her to the most destitute, the most ignored, the most scorned among us.

She was a force: loud, proud, and profane — the self-proclaimed Diva of Dorchester. When AIDS decimated the city’s poorest neighborhoods, Anne Burns was there to catch and caress the dying. In more recent years, as illness slowly crushed her, she cruised the inner city streets in her wheelchair, giving drivers heart attacks, giving hugs to prostitutes and hustlers and anybody else who needed one.

When he, Anne, and others set up their AIDS ministry in the early 1980s at what became St. Katharine Drexel Church in Dorchester, the Rev. Jerry Osterman said many were afraid to touch people with AIDS.

“These people are human beings,’’ Anne told Father Jerry. “I’m not putting gloves on to hug them.’’

Dolores Pickett, who worked in the AIDS ministry, said dozens of people took their last breaths while cradled in Anne’s arms. And then Anne would turn her attention to those left behind.

“Anne’s role was mama,’’ she said. “All the babies loved her.’’

Anne Burns made sure those children remembered their mothers. Every year, she gathered the AIDS orphans at St. Katharine’s rectory and had them write letters to their dead mothers. Then they put the letters in balloons and released them. As the balloons lifted skyward, Anne assured the children their mothers would get their letters in heaven.

Bishops sought her counsel. Women sought her guidance. Children sought her embrace. Whenever an ambulance went by, Anne Burns stopped and prayed for the person in the back of it.

Anne Burns had a profound, deep empathy for the least among us because she had been one of them.

One day, Father Jerry recalled, Anne’s wheelchair got stuck on a curb. She couldn’t dislodge it. A kind Boston police officer stopped, helped her into his cruiser, then loaded her wheelchair into the trunk. On the drive home, Anne turned to the cop and said, “You know, officer, this is the first time I’ve sat in the front of a police car.’’

Her model for Christian love and charity was Mother Teresa, whom she met in Boston. Three years ago, the Rev. Michael Nolan took Anne to Rome, so she could be there when her inspiration became a saint.

The funeral of the saintly, salty Anne Burns, Boston’s most loving mother, will take place Saturday, a day before Mother’s Day, at St. Katharine’s.

Katie Burns smiled, laughed, and cried, remembering a woman who judged no one.

“She carried no prejudice,’’ Katie said. “The world was her family.’’

A little earlier, Katie had been going through her mother’s clothes, before she dropped them off at Rosie’s Place, the sanctuary for poor and homeless women. Katie stuck her hand in a pocket and pulled out a bunch of prayer cards and Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards. These were the cards Anne Burns handed out to streetwalkers she talked to and embraced in the wee hours of the morning.

On one of the prayer cards Anne had written: Know that you’re loved.

In doing so, she wrote her own epitaph.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.