Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Hawthorne Dominicans: At the Final Frontier of Evangelization

I got back from Atlanta Monday night, after a full weekend: the Atlanta Archdiocesan Eucharistic Congress (the 20th!), the Catholic New Media Conference (the 8th!), and the hospitality of the Hawthorne Dominicans. Staying on the convent side of their home for terminal cancer patients, I got to witness very briefly how timely is a mission that many might assume a relic of the past but that is instead more contemporary than ever.

Someone recently asked this sister
if she didn't get bored during the day,
watching with cancer patients and standing
at the nurse's station, alert to their needs.
"Bored?! I wish I had some boredom in my life!"
The community, founded by Rose Hawthorne Lathrop (daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne), sticks to its original 19th century mission of caring for people with incurable cancer and inadequate financial resources. They don't accept payment of any kind from their patients, family or the government: no Medicare, Medicaid or insurance. The entire 24-patient hospital (like their other homes in New York and Pennsylvania) runs entirely on Divine Providence. There are lay staff, but sister-nurses are on the floors 24/7. A sign at the entrance to the convent portion of the building reminds one to be attentive to noises, since at any time of day sisters might be resting after night duty (or resting up for night duty).

Sister keeping watch with Jesus
during Eucharistic Adoration.
Morning prayers and Mass are early (6:15 on Monday!); after the Mass, Communion is brought to the Catholics who desire to receive. A little procession (a sister ringing a tiny, clear bell announces the approach of the priest or Extraordinary Minister with the pyx) heads from chapel to the patient rooms. I assumed that this daily occurrence would be handled quickly, but I was wrong. The tiny bell was still ringing 40 minutes after Mass one day. They know what's important. A daily holy hour is part of the community's prayer, and when I arrived on a First Friday they were holding all-day adoration, with every sister (some of them elderly and infirm) taking a spot before the Blessed Sacrament. They pray Evening Prayer and Compline together, singing the familiar Gregorian melodies. Community recreations are spent together, and I was invited on those evenings I did not have outside commitments.

Mary shrine in the front gardens.
The patient rooms are large, with full windows that look out onto front or back gardens to which the patients have full access in their wheelchairs or motorized carts. Some of the patients have no family and stay for years, really becoming family. Some of them also become Catholic, and many of those who arrive as non-practicing Catholics return to the sacraments in that peaceful atmosphere. The patients, who receive a high level of palliative care from the Dominicans, are the same people who are being targeted by the various euthanasia campaigns around our country and the world. One of the sisters told me that they have begun hearing slogans about "death with dignity" from patients and their families. Why can't they just take an extra-large dose of sleeping medicine and be done with all this? The sisters' answer is to help the person experience their true dignity in death and dying. They have more than a century of experience accompanying the dying, and their input should be sought in any discussion of "death with dignity" legislation.

A lovely shrine in the front garden.
This is not the only timely dimension of the sisters' charism. How many families have been bankrupted because of medical expenses? How often do people feel they owe it to their family to depart this life quickly, in order to avoid the risk of financial ruin? This is something the sisters address with exquisite charity, not even accepting donations from patients' families.

While the sisters do have some vocations (and they accept "delayed vocations"), they have still had to consolidate homes over the past number of years as their median age rises and sisters have to withdraw from active nursing ("The hardest thing I ever had to do," Sister Mary Martha admitted to me). They have a website and a Facebook page, but social media is not their thing (the Facebook page was last updated on May 30). They are too busy taking care of their patients, all the way to Heaven.

Certified: the largest black
oak in the State of Georgia.
See how it towers over the home!
Even the largest black oak in the State
is subject to the whimsical touch of the local superior!


Ann said...

Thank you for this post - it's beautiful. May God raise up more vocations to this particular ministry.

Sr Anne Flanagan said...

Amen! Amen! In fact, I posted the video separately on Twitter and a young woman replied that she was considering the Hawthorne Dominicans, so please pray for her in a special way, that she might make a wise discernment.

Ann said...

Now, that's a good use of social media! I absolutely will pray for her.