Nuns provide free hospice care to cancer patients

Kristen A. Graham
Philadelphia Inquirer

Philadelphia — It is called Sacred Heart Home, and its work is just that: sacred.

For 84 years, a group of nuns has cared for poor people dying from cancer in their gleaming home on the edge of Hunting Park. They do it free of charge.

The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne accept no payment from patients, insurance firms, or the government. Though its sisters are Catholic, Sacred Heart gets no funding stream from any diocese or church.

“Isn’t that a miracle?” asked Sister Mary de Paul Mullen, Sacred Heart’s nursing director. “We rely totally on the providence of God to exist.”

Technically, Sacred Heart is a 35-bed skilled nursing facility. Practically, patient Eileen Rugh said, it is more — a place where the cheerful nuns take care of her as tenderly as though she were family, a place far less grim than she imagined when she heard the word hospice.

“We don’t talk about death here,” said Rugh, who has Stage 4 lung cancer. “We just talk about today, and today’s a pretty good day.”

The work is inspired by Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, daughter of the 19th-century writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and a convert to Catholicism. After learning about a New York seamstress who died in a poorhouse for lack of cancer care, Lathrop was moved to act.

“A fire was then lighted in my heart, where it still burns,” she wrote. “I set my whole being to endeavor to bring consolation to the cancerous poor,” she wrote.

Lathrop took a nursing course, rented a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and began doing just that in 1896. Eventually, she became a nun, took the name Mother Alphonsa, and in 1900 founded the order.

In 1930, the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne came to Philadelphia and started what was at first called the Sacred Heart Free Home for Incurable Cancer in the city’s Hunting Park section. By 1952, they were in their current home, a three-story brick structure.

Over the years, thousands of men and women have received end-of-life care from the sisters. Today, five nuns are registered nurses and five more work as nursing assistants; a small, paid staff of nurses, maintenance and cleaning personnel supplements the sisters’ efforts.

The sisters pray in the chapel daily; Mass is said on Sundays and holidays. Residents may attend services or watch them in their rooms, but religion is not an admissions criteria, and most patients are not Catholic.

Some residents come to Sacred Heart from homeless shelters or prisons. Some have family who visit daily, and others have no one. Some stay for a month, some stay for a year or more. They are the people who would otherwise fall through the cracks, the sisters say.

To gain admission, patients must have stopped treatment for cancer. The focus is palliative care, pain control, comfort.

Sacred Heart patients are provided with medications and daily whirlpool baths, social services, laundry, barber and beautician services. A doctor makes regular visits. There is entertainment, too, games and music for the people well enough to enjoy them.

Sacred Heart has a small endowment, Sister Mary de Paul said, built up over years of donations, bequests from wills and contributions made in memory of former patients.