Michaels Avenue on the north side of Syracuse, New York, looks like any other quiet, residential street. The third house on the left has a quaint covered porch with a white railing. It is surrounded by a perfectly groomed yard with blooming shrubs and seasonal flowers. A small sign that reads “Francis House” marks the driveway. There’s another porch at the rear of the house and when you enter, you smell home-cooked food and freshly baked desserts. It feels and looks like home. Indeed, for the past 25 years, Francis House has been the final earthly home for over 2,500 people.
Founded by Sister Kathleen Osbelt and the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in 1991, the mission of Francis House is to provide a home and an extended family for persons with terminal illnesses and to give them dignity in death, surrounded by the unconditional love of God.
“Within every person is the longing for fullness of life. It is love that brings forth that fullness,” says Sister Kathleen. “That’s why Francis House began—that persons may be given a full life until death.”
Nancy Light, Francis House’s executive director agrees. “We welcome people to become part of our family. We don’t dwell on when the “time” might come, but live every day,” she says. People at perhaps the most vulnerable time in their lives choose to put their trust in us. It is a tremendous responsibility and a great privilege.”
Sister Kathleen began dreaming about Francis House when she was a hospital chaplain and journeyed with a young woman diagnosed with HIV / AIDS. It was the 1980s and a diagnosis of HIV at that time was very grim. With few places other than an acute care setting available, most people with the illness lived their final days in a hospital. The young woman Sister Kathleen knew spent her last Christmas, Easter and birthday in a hospital room. Aware that many others who lacked resources or family did not have the option of dying at home, Sister Kathleen approached her congregation. The Sisters of St. Francis provided a two-family house; community volunteers made it ready to accept the first residents.
The first resident of Francis House came from the hospital. He had long ago lost his job and his family. He was homeless and completely alone in the world. When she found him crying one day, Sister Kathleen asked if he was in pain. He shook his head and responded, “I can’t believe that I could be loved this much.”
Within two months of that first resident’s arrival, Francis House expanded from four bedrooms to six. Seven years later the demand for service had grown so much, a single story was built onto the house, adding two more bedrooms and a kitchen, great room and chapel to the original structure. In 2003, a second, eight-bedroom home was built right next to the existing Francis House; the houses are connected to ease access for staff and volunteers. With 16 bedrooms, capacity now is complete.
Residents receive care 24/7 from a staff of trained caregivers who are supported by more than 450 volunteers. Volunteers, “the heart of our home,” says Sister Kathleen, receive 10 hours of training in communication, physical aspects of dying, spiritual aspects of dying, mission, history and household basics. The experiences gained at Francis House have helped hundreds of volunteers in their own lives. “Many volunteers share that their time at Francis House helped them to care for a loved one at home,” says Nancy Light.
Because Francis House is home and visiting family so very often includes several generations, there is a children’s corner in the great room, a special place where children may read, color and play with toys. Family pets, those dear friends who bring a special kind of unconditional love to the bedside, are always welcome. There are comfortable chairs, and family members and spouses receive coffee, snacks and meals.
Francis House is now positioned to share its experience in a more formal way. “We have been blessed,” says Nancy Light. “We are anxious to pay those blessings forward.” In March, Francis House and LeMoyne College hosted a teaching day titled, “Living the Final Chapter; A Symposium for Compassionate Care for Persons at End of Life”. Attended by 250 healthcare professionals, the day focused on end of life care and the Francis House model. In addition, Francis House is developing a resource center which will include a website with information about Francis House, end of life care issues and information for people who are contemplating starting a Francis House model of care in their community. As director of mission outreach, Sister Kathleen oversees this resource center.
“This year has been a wonderful year of celebration,” says Sister Kathleen. “We are grateful to all of our donors, volunteers and staff for years of dedicated, compassionate and loving care. We are most grateful to our residents and families who have truly blessed us with their trust. We look forward to continuing to serve our brothers and sisters in need at the end of life.”