What to do with that excess parish property? It's a question afflicting many downsizing Catholic churches.
St. Peter's Parish in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, a part of the Scranton Diocese, came up with a creative answer to that question more than 20 years ago, and as a result some 70 invited guests have lived their last days in an atmosphere of dignity and care.
Samaritan House, a property owned by the parish, is a home for guests, Catholics and non-Catholics, with means and without, who share a common trait. They are expected to die within six months.
It's "a spa for the dying," Jackie Buckheit, a Mansfield, Pennsylvania,* funeral home director, told NCR. She spent three weeks visiting the home regularly while her 75-year-old father, Jack Sackett, spent the last remaining days of his life in 2013.
Her father was unable to be treated at home; bone cancer, which he had fought for more than a decade, made him unable to stand. Samaritan House was able to provide full-time care, and a chance for Buckheit and her siblings to visit regularly.
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Samaritan House is not a hospice, although it relies on support from the local hospice agency, which provides medical support. It is simply a home for the dying, in which volunteers, rotating in four-hour shifts, with one eight-hour overnight shift, provide basic needs.
"It is the best care a person can receive," said Buckheit, who notes that, unlike at many nursing homes and private homes in which families are unable to provide full-time care, guests at Samaritan House are provided with regular pain relief and attention to avoid conditions like bedsores.
Longtime volunteer Karen Usavage, a nurse practitioner, said Samaritan House provides "safe, comfortable care" at a difficult time. Guests are not charged, and they are encouraged to bring with them the items that make them comfortable, including pets.
Located in a small town with four stoplights and fewer than 5,000 people, Samaritan House has trained more than 100 volunteers to participate in supportive care, one guest at a time. Organizers say it is the only parish-based program of its kind that they know of. Support comes from donations and grants.
The impetus for Samaritan House came around the time Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's death put a spotlight on the church's pro-life stance at the end of life.
"The idea of respecting life at the end of life made sense to us," said Daria Guelig, a volunteer and a retired physician's assistant. Her husband, Ed Guelig, is a physician and serves as medical director. Michael Sullivan, pastor of St. Peter's at the time, provided encouragement and support (he is no longer a priest). The Scranton Diocese provided a seed grant.
The thought was that guests would mostly be those living in extreme poverty or with no family. But they found that support in dying is welcome for those with family and resources as well.
Volunteers and guests include Catholics and non-Catholics. The name Samaritan House invoked a common Christian Gospel story, and was selected to be more ecumenically inviting. They are united in sharing "the special time to be with someone as they die," said Daria Guelig.
The special moments as a volunteer include deep, profound conversations, amid a normal routine. "It's OK, Mom. You can go now" are words Daria Guelig heard from a son at his mother's deathbed.
Priscilla Walrath, a local attorney, is an overnight volunteer at Samaritan House.
Sometimes, the nights are quiet. Other times, guests are active, getting up to wash the dishes and, in one case, preparing for a picnic. Ice chips for parched mouths are an important tool. She is sometimes called upon to insert a catheter or assist with medications.
"People are very different. Some want to talk about death. Others are more concerned about taking care of their families. People don't want to die before everything they want to do is done," said Walrath.
Fr. David Bechtel, St. Peter's pastor for the past two years, said Samaritan House is a visible sign to Wellsboro that the local Catholic parish cares about those beyond the parish rolls.
"It extends the unconditional love of God to the community. We do this without strings attached," he said. "God is a part of this. God is with the person in life. He is there when he is crossing over."
Other parishes should be encouraged by St. Peter's example, said Bechtel. "It's easier than you think. You don't have to have a vast medical training."
Buckheit, a member of a Methodist congregation, said her father at the time of his death was a believing Christian but not a churchgoer.
"It wasn't about religion. It was about care," she said.
For Walrath, her volunteer service at Samaritan House reinforces what she teaches each week at St. Peter's religious education classes. It is a concrete way of helping a single person at a time, a charity that requires personal involvement. If Samaritan House can make the crossing over to the other side easier, it is worth the investment in time, energy and dollars.
"Death is really hard. But it will happen to everyone," she said.
[Peter Feuerherd is a correspondent for NCR's Field Hospital series on parish life and is a professor of journalism at St. John's University, New York.]
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*This story has been updated with the correct location of Jackie Buckheit's funeral home.
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