‘Living through, with, and beyond the experience of death’ – Archbishop Bernard visits St Joseph’s Hospice, Hackney.

On Thursday 30 March 2017, Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham spent a day visiting St Joseph’s Hospice, Hackney. Archbishop Bernard is very familiar with the work of St Joseph’s Hospice from his time as auxiliary Bishop of Westminster. The purpose of this visit was to give one in a series of Lenten Lectures that the hospice hosts throughout the season of Lent.

The History of the Hospice
In 1903, the Religious Sisters of Charity, who had moved from Ireland to Hackney, were being evicted from their home at the Cambridge Lodge Estate. On March 25 1904, an anonymous buyer bought out the property for the sisters to use as a Hospice for the Dying. From the very beginning, the Hospice welcomed patients of all faiths and none in to the hospice, whilst the Sisters also helped the people of Hoxton and Hackney that were suffering from hunger and poverty, in their own homes. By 1950, the hospice had grown and there were 25 nuns, a large staff of doctors, nurses, ancillary workers and volunteers. The Hospice became widely known, and Cecily Saunders began her clinical studies there in 1958. This drew attention to the hospice as a ground-breaking centre for change of the hospice care system, including the launch of Home Care (now MacMillan Cancer Support) by Dr Richard Lamerton and St Antonia in 1975. The Hospice continues to be a forerunner in the field; what was once ‘a modest establishment providing solitude and care to the dying poor’ is now ‘an expansive modern hospice including palliative care, education and research’.

Imagery as a lifeline
Archbishop Bernard began his trip with a mass, said for the intentions of the residents and staff of St Joseph’s Hospice. Upon taking lunch in the hospice canteen, Archbishop Bernard was met with many old friends, from nurses to religious sisters to the families of patients. During lunch, Nurse Carolyne Barber talked about the importance and power of photography for terminally ill patients at the hospice. ‘Photography has a huge place here. When you are surrounded by death in such a raw way every day, photography of nature can be very healing. It brings the outside in to those that cannot get out’. Nurse Carolyne’s award-winning natural photography features throughout the building and is often used during therapeutic sessions with patients. ‘We encourage all types of photography here. There is something special about the capturing of a moment, whether of people or of nature. It encourages patients to remember and create memories, which can so often be life giving.’

Catholic service
Archbishop Bernard’s lecture used ideas of ‘service’ as its theme, which is the fourth vow professed by those entering some religious orders. This is a key grounding to the work of St Joseph’s Hospice. Archbishop Bernard said that ‘St Joseph’s continues to draw on the strength of its Catholic foundation. It has known how to adapt its mission and evolved in a way that I would describe as authentically Catholic. By this, I mean, that the service that arises from the love of Jesus Christ has always to be offered freely and indiscriminately’. Archbishop Bernard described the unique nature of service rooted in Catholic teaching; he believes that ‘to be truly Catholic is to reach out to those most in need, irrespective of ethnic, cultural or religious background, political affiliation, or economic circumstances’. He also believes that Catholic service ‘includes a willingness to [serve] in fruitful partnership with others, wherever we have shared values and priorities’, which is what enables St Joseph’s Hospice to be ‘at the forefront of ecumenical and interreligious cooperation and witness.’

Walking with Jesus, in life and death
As we come into Holy Week, the time in which Jesus’ death is commemorated, Archbishop Bernard spoke on ‘the view from the cross’. He asked those assembled to consider how ‘Christ, in his passion, looked upon those who were around him’, essentially, what it feels like to be dying. He suggested that to view a world in the midst of suffering could make us more aware and open to the compassion that can come about during times of great distress.  He also spoke on Jesus’ love and sacrifice, and how it ‘accompanies us from the first moments of our existence, throughout our childhood and youth, and all along life’s journey’. He expressed the comfort that can be found when ‘we believe that the Lord is always at our side, at times to support and comfort us, but often too challenging us and urging us on’.

Preparing for the end
Archbishop Bernard said that ‘the way that we respond to the most important moments of our lives, whether a challenge, a moment of great stress, or preparing for our own journey towards the end of our natural lives, is often a reflection of the way that we have lived, the experiences that we have had and how we have been preparing for that one great challenge that is before each one of us’. He linked this to a key theme from The Art of Dying Well; that to live with death in mind, memento mori, is to live well and fully. Preparation for death, in its most intimate stages does not have to be without life. ‘Hospice care enables every day to be a source of joy and a channel of love. It brings meaning to the lives of all. The witness of service and prayer of the sisters and all who are united with them enhance the quality of care received by patients.

Care, prayer and life are part of the intrinsic make-up of St Joseph’s Hospice, and so many other palliative and end-of-life care institutions. For the staff, the work is life enriching, and for the patients, the end of life is enhanced and cherished. As Archbishop Bernard stated, ‘God does not take his gifts away from us. Life is for living through, with, and beyond the experience of death’.

Nina Mattiello Azadeh
Media Assistant
Catholic Communications Network

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