The Dominican order is a preaching order. White-habited friars and religious sisters teach theology, write books, operate schools – one friar even offered to chant the Summa Theologica during a pregnant friend’s labor. (She declined.) But in Hawthorne, New York, the Dominican congregation of St. Rose of Lima lives a quieter charism.
The sisters nurse terminal cancer patients. Their community was founded in 1900 by Rose Hawthorne Lathrop (the daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne). Lathrop converted to Catholicism and took the religious name Mother Mary Alphonsa. She began by caring for incurable cancer patients on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and the congregation carries on that work today, outside the city.
Their center is certified for up to fifty-four patients, but they often serve about twenty-five, since they stick to a more generous staffing ratio than the law requires. Their palliative care is marked by the gift of presence.
Some sisters are drawn to the congregation because they have already worked as nurses, and they want a more prayerful life while continuing to serve the sick. For Sr. Stella Mary, who entered the order sixteen years ago, nursing had never been on her mind. She had imagined herself married, until God worked very strongly in her life, and she knew she would enter religious life, but just didn’t know where.
No matter their past expertise, all the sisters begin their formation in the religious life before they receive any medical training. A sister who enters with a medical degree might work as an assistant to an older sister who has more basic training as a certified nursing assistant. The new sister might be more practiced at medicine, but not at the stillness and patience that the order cultivates. The sisters have the flexibility to set everything else aside to stay with a patient for as long as they are needed – very different than the rushed routines at many hospitals, which stretch nurses across too many patients.
Sr. Stella Mary was nervous when she began working with patients, but older sisters gave her two pieces of advice. “Remember, you are first a religious.” She would be trained in basic medical care, but her first work would always be to pray and love the patients. Nursing was a way to express that love. The other piece of advice was more practical – all the patients are terminal. She wouldn’t be a surgeon whose smallest gesture could save a life or end it. Everyone came to the sisters to prepare to die, and hopefully to die well.
When the patients arrive, Sr. Stella Mary says, they come very broken, physically and emotionally. It’s not just the knowledge that they are dying, but the fear of being a burden, the sorrow at not being able to take care of their families. Many come from hospitals that may have treated them as irritants. Because the patients are poor, they linger in hospitals long after a richer patient would be discharged. Their poverty means that most nursing facilities won’t accept them, so they are stuck in limbo, unable to be safely discharged, until someone makes a call to the sisters.
For the sisters, there is no sense of regret about not knowing their patients as they were in their full strength. “We don’t have expectations ‘They always did this …’” Sr. Stella Mary says. “We’re here to learn who they are at this point in time.” Their needs are how the sisters come to know them, and the sisters’ daily acts of service are the form their love takes. As Sr. Stella Mary puts it, “The people you remember the clearest are the ones who give you the most trouble.”
At each bedside, the sisters are preaching, just like their more famous and public brethren. While friars of the Thomistic Institute offer programs on college campuses, the sisters are offering private tutorials on the nature of God.
To prepare for their work, they spend time in adoration of Jesus in the Eucharist. “We receive God’s love,” Sr. Stella Mary explains, and they let that love overflow from them. By looking at Jesus, they learn to see with his eyes. “We love this person how God loves them, how God intends them to be loved.”
There are few direct citations of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa, but each act of care, each loving look, each unhurried moment of waiting together, is preaching. Here are your meds, here is who God is, here is who you are. Here I am with you, with him.