Mercy Under One Roof

John, we'll call him, sits quietly in a comfortable lounge chair, looking out a window to a green-gardened terrace, watching the birds feed. He smiles and sips from a glass of iced ginger ale. A woman comes by and asks if he needs anything.

"No," John says. "I have everything I need."

"How do you feel?" she asks.

"At peace."

John is in his late 60s. He has cancer. He is dying.

In 'the Fundamental Spirit' of St. Francis
As you make your way down Grant Avenue in Syracuse, N.Y., you pass the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities. The sisters live in what they call "the fundamental spirit" of St. Francis and St. Clare. This means living in kinship with all of humanity, every living creature, and all of creation.

The congregation embraces the four core values of the Franciscan Third Order: Conversion, poverty, contemplation, and humility. Active ministry based upon prayer and the communal life expresses itself in many ways, nowhere better than in Francis House, a home for people with terminal illnesses.

Francis House sits tucked away on Michaels Avenue in an attractive residential neighborhood of Syracuse close to the congregation's motherhouse. The House consists of two connected structures: the original home, an old Bostonian built in 1918 that holds the administrative offices, a living room, and a dining room, and eight resident bedrooms; and a second building with seven more bedrooms, built in 2003 and opened in January 2004.

Francis House opened on Jan. 28, 1991, two years after the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities recognized the need to create a home and a family where people with terminal illnesses could die with dignity and experience unconditional love. Sister Kathleen Osbelt, OSF, got the inspiration after caring for a person with AIDS at a local Syracuse hospital. The antiseptic, sterile environment prompted Sr. Kathleen into merciful action. Twenty-one years later, Francis House has cared for more than 1,800 residents, and provided support to more than 10,000 family members, friends, and loved ones.

Built on a Bedrock of Compassion and Care
Francis House provides a home to more than 100 terminally ill people each year. They receive 24-hour nursing care, home-cooked meals, pet and music therapy, birthday and holiday celebrations, and (if they want) pastoral care. The average stay is 22 days. Francis House admits anyone with a prognosis of three months or less life expectancy with an illness showing steady progression. They welcome people regardless of race, gender, religion, or financial resources.

Francis House does not receive a dime in federal, state, county, or city funding. It does not receive reimbursement from private insurance companies, Medicare, or Medicaid. It is not a United Way agency and receives none of United Way funding. Francis House gets by because of the generosity of more than 550 volunteers, with financial assistance from area businesses and foundations.

The paid staff includes nine administrators and 15 caregivers, but the heart of the work goes to the volunteers. At any one time, each day, 18 volunteers work in Francis House in hour-hour shifts. They cook and serve meals. They do yard work and maintenance. They make beds and clean bedpans. Most important, they provide caring and compassionate human support for every resident and their families.

"Being able to die with such peace and dignity," says the daughter of a former Francis House resident, "surrounded by loved ones, is truly a miracle. My family would like to thank Francis House for being a place where miracles happen."

"Miracle" is a synonymous outcome of another "m" word: "mercy."

A Place Where Light, Love Flood the Rooms
As you tour Francis House, the immediate impression is one of light. Remodeling and construction were done is such a way to maximize the amount of natural light coming in. Light pours into bedrooms and common spaces, and even on overcast days, a diffuse luminosity bathes each of the rooms, providing an airy feeling.

Each building has a prayer chapel dominated by a handcrafted stained-glass window donated by Syracuse artist Scott Brennan. The backlit windows deliver gem-rays of colored light. Volunteers made much of the furniture at Francis House: shelving, bookcases, tables, and even an altar for Mass.

A brochure for the praying of the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy, taught to St. Faustina by Jesus, rests on a table in back of the room. The dog-eared paper speaks of much use. In another room, a large tally board marks the names of volunteers and their shifts. Its sheer size and the hundreds upon hundreds of names silently "testify," a "how to" for showing mercy to others.

The outside grounds include lovely stone patio and terrace, lush with perennial plants, trees, bird feeders, and comfortable chairs. The surroundings suggest more a rustic woodland setting than a yard in the middle of a sizeable city. Inside, each room in Francis House exudes comfort and care, a warmth and coziness, just not possible in a hospital room. There are no visiting hours, which is another way of saying that visitors are welcome at all hours of the day, a great convenience for busy families. Also, Francis House has no age restrictions on visitors. When they say all are welcome, they mean it, literally.

'This is Somebody's Home'
Beth Lynn Hoey, Francis House director of development, left a corporate position to head Francis House.

She says that with 15 beds, gaining admission can be difficult ... if left to men and women. She adds, though, that "divine intervention" often brings a person to Francis House to spend their final days on earth: "If somebody's suppose to be here," Beth says, "they get here."

Beth describes her job as "incredibly challenging and rewarding." Though some days bring the emotional difficulties associated with death, Beth says she's never looked forward as much to going to work: "You do cry sometimes, but most of the time, you walk out of here at the end of the day feeling great. It's a joy to come to work. We have an extended family, everyone here - staff, volunteers, and residents. With our residents, I try to keep in mind: 'This is somebody's home.'"

Beth says the staff meets daily to coordinate care and to share information. Staff and volunteers at Francis House share a Franciscan compassion for people, she says: "You feel it's an honor and a privilege to care for the dying. You feel like it's a gift to be here, serving."

'We Do the Work; God Does the Choosing'
It's a big job, she says, running a place like Francis House, especially coordinating staff and the hundreds of volunteers into producing the best possible residential care, but the staff doesn't do it alone.

Lynn Harrowell, coordinator of residential care, puts it this way: "We do the leg work; God does the choosing." Lynn is in her first year with Francis House. To her goes the tough job of admissions. Not everyone who needs palliative care can get in, because there simply aren't enough beds.

"To work here is a calling," Lynn says. "I spent my entire career [in healthcare] getting ready to do this job. It involves lots of phone calls, lots of listening, lots of work, and a whole lot of praying. I try to involve God in every decision I make."

Lynn says Divine Mercy "is at the heart of what we do at Francis House. When you walk into this building, you can feel the presence of God. There's a certain softness about this place. The love and compassion you feel is tangible. This house is not about one person. This house operates because there's a dedicated team here. I've been in the business a long time. Believe me, this is one of a kind. The Sisters [of St. Francis] provide the added spark."

Lynn says she tries to share God's presence with everyone, regardless of their belief or disbelief: "You have to accept people where they are. People are in different places in their lives, spiritually, and you have to meet them there. You don't try to force anything. You accept them right where they are. Let God do the rest."

'Being there' is an Important Ingredient in Mercy
Palliative care is a large part of the treatment for residents, of course, but Beth says one of the most important things volunteers and staff can do for residents is simply "to be present. Often, the best thing when you're with a dying person is to just 'be.' Give them what they need: make them as comfortable as possible, give them dignity, and show them unconditional love. Just be there for them."
The ending of the great Prayer of St. Francis states the reciprocal the "Law of Mercy:"

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console.
To be understood, as to understand.
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

A Working Definition of Mercy in Action
"I'm meant to be here," Beth Hoey says of her 14 years at Francis House. "I feel I'm supposed to be a part of this, using my talents to be able to raise the money to keep this place going. This job is not about the money. It's about helping someone's life. This is not about me. When you walk in that door, you lose that sense of 'Me' and you get a sense of 'Us.' That's the greatest compensation possible."

When we speak to her about mercy in action, Beth says, "That's the definition of this place. Absolutely."

Beth and Lynn agree that working at Francis House has made them better people. Both say they are more grateful.

"I realize more every day the blessings I have, and I give thanks for that," Lynn says.

"I'm more aware that God is with me all the time," says Beth. "He's with everyone, all the time."

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