Sacred calling: Philadelphia nuns provide free hospice care to cancer patients

Sister Mary Barbara Randolph wheels resident Marie Ramos into the community room at Sacred Heart Home.
Sister Mary Barbara Randolph wheels resident Marie Ramos into the community room at Sacred Heart Home. Tribune

PHILADELPHIA – It is called Sacred Heart Home, and its work is just that: sacred.

For 84 years, a group of nuns has been caring 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 of any kind from patients, insurance companies, or the government. Though its sisters are Roman Catholic, Sacred Heart receives 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.”

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 established what was at first called the Sacred Heart Free Home for Incurable Cancer in the city’s Hunting Park section. By 1952, they had moved into 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.

On a recent day, a singer crooned holiday standards to residents who gathered in a lounge to smile and sway a little.

Leo Venckus, 88, sat at a table, nursing a cup of coffee and waiting for the singing to start.

Venckus, a gregarious retired insurance salesman from North Philadelphia who has lung cancer, came to Sacred Heart a few months ago.

“This is a hell of a place,” he said approvingly. “I’m very satisfied. There’s entertainment, it’s clean, the food is good, the staff is friendly.”

Down the hall, Rugh sat in her warm, immaculate room, adorned like the rest of the home with colorful Christmas decorations.

Rugh, who has lived at Sacred Heart for eight months, relaxed on a green leather recliner topped with a fuzzy brown blanket.

She marvels daily, she said, at the sisters who provide her one-on-one care.

“They always say, ‘Whatever you need,' “ said Rugh, 59. “They keep your spirits up. It’s gorgeous, and everything is in abundance.”

The sisters work hard to ensure that.

“It’s not home,” Sister Mary de Paul said, “but we hope it’s the next best thing. And for some people, it’s better than home.”

Sacred Heart does not smell like a hospital, and though the trappings of illness and death are always present, they do not dominate.

The home was magnificent for Christmas this year. But it always shines, from the polished wooden chair rails that line the hallways to the garden that somehow manages to convey peace amid physical pain and the bustle of the gritty neighborhood.

That’s important to Rich Tenaglia, a maintenance man who for 28 years has tended to the garden’s lovely plants, flowers, and shrubs.

“It is hard work,” Tenaglia said of keeping up the large home, which takes up an entire city block. “But very fulfilling.”