ROCHESTER — Carmelite Father Jack Healy recalled an attempt to spread cheer to a 96-year-old patient who was staying at Mount Carmel House, a home for the dying.
“I said to her, ‘I hope I look as good as you do when I’m 96.’ She said, ‘You look as good as me now.’”
That’s not the kind of tale most people expect to hear when they ask about his ministry to the terminally ill, noted Father Healy, chaplain of Mount Carmel House. Yet working with the dying is not about focusing on the grimness of death, he said, and humor is part of the day-to-day care extended to patients.
“It’s like having a very sick relative at home,” he said. “You get used to the incapacity.”
Richard Leitten, the home’s financial director, voiced similar sentiments.
“I never find myself thinking, ‘This person is going to die,’” he said. “I find myself thinking, ‘How can I make this person more comfortable?’”
Volunteers and staff people at Mount Carmel House have been comforting the dying since Third Order Carmelites — lay single and married persons associated with the Carmelites — founded the home in 1984. The home celebrated its 20th anniversary with a Mass at Most Precious Blood Church on July 25, followed by a reception and dinner offsite.
Originally located near St. Anthony of Padua Church, Mount Carmel House is currently located in the former convent of Most Precious Blood Parish. The home has hosted more than 270 terminally ill people since it opened, according to Third Order Carmelite Raoul Grossi, president of the house corporation. Mount Carmel can host up to two patients at a time, he said, and the home gives preference to patients of limited means. Patients, who don’t have to be Catholic, are not charged for their care, he said, and their stays range from a few hours to a few months.
The home is funded through private donations, and staffed by 100 volunteers and eight paid staff members, Leitten added. Many of the volunteers are physicians, nurses and nurses’ aides, although anyone in the community is welcome to volunteer, the Mount Carmel team noted. Volunteers do a wide variety of tasks, from cooking for patients and talking with them to providing medical care and pastoral assistance.
Like Father Healy and Leitten, Grossi emphasized that Mount Carmel is about life, not death. He added that working at Mount Carmel has enhanced his belief in God.
“You cannot be in this field and not have it do anything but deepen your faith,” he said. “You see people here who are willing to forget their own problems and serve others.”
Volunteer Charlie Marcera sees his work as a channel for God’s work.
"God’s work in this particular situation is helping people to die," he said.
Grossi and his wife, Rose, the home’s secretary, said they were inspired to found the home after watching a TV-news broadcast about a homeless man who froze to death in the winter after he fell asleep on a heating grate. The couple discussed the plight of those left to die alone, Rose said.
"We just thought we ought to do something," she said.
Like her colleagues, Rose said working with the dying has enhanced her spiritual life.
"It has made me more appreciative of the number of people in this world who are good," she said. "They’ve made my life worthwhile."
With several other Third Order Carmelites, the couple founded the home, the first of its kind in the area. Since then, almost a score of homes for the dying have opened in and around Rochester, including several that were founded with the help of Catholic parishes and that drew on the Mount Carmel model. Yet the best testament to the value of Mount Carmel may have come from a patient, Carey Gainey. As he watched TV in his room, the elderly gentleman shifted in his bed and spoke simply of his care. He won’t have to worry about falling anymore, he said, because someone will be around.
"People are friendly," he said. "Everything’s good so far."
EDITOR’S NOTE: For information on Mount Carmel House, call 585/458-6508 or write: Mount Carmel House, 4 Planet St., Rochester, NY 14606.