Home on the North Side of Syracuse provides comfort to people with terminal illnesses so they can die with dignity and experience unconditional love
By Margaret McCormick
Mary Anne Hankins is still relatively new to her role as executive director of Francis House, a final home for the terminally ill on the North Side of Syracuse. Like many before her, she says, she felt a sense of comfort and love when she visited for the first time.
“Walking in, it just felt like a peace came over me,’’ Hankins recalls. “You just feel the love when you walk in the door. I had heard all about it, but once you’re here you just feel it. It truly is a wonderful place.’’
Francis House is a special place with a special mission: to provide a home and extended family to people with terminal illnesses so they can die with dignity and experience unconditional love. The home is at 108 Michaels Ave., a quiet, one-way street off Court Street, near the former Maria Regina College. It marked its 30th anniversary earlier this year.
Francis House is a sponsored ministry of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities. It is a private home, not a licensed hospice or nursing home, and receives no city, state or federal funding. It exists thanks to the generosity of donors and the dedication of a small staff, caregivers and hundreds of trained volunteers, who do everything from clean the bathrooms to cut the grass to visit with residents.
Since its humble beginning in 1991, Francis House has served more than 3,300 residents — ranging in age from less than a year to more than 100 years. The faith-based ministry welcomes people of all ages, ethnicities and religions with terminal illnesses and prognoses of six months or less to live. Residents must be enrolled with a home health care agency, such as Hospice of Central New York and Hospice of the Finger Lakes. Admission is based solely on need — who at this time most needs the care that Francis House offers? That could mean an 80-year-old man or woman with cancer, no family nearby and no funds to pay for at-home care.
“Family and home… from the beginning, that’s all we wanted to be,’’ says Francis House founder Sister Kathleen Osbelt. “Those were our parameters. We don’t want to be a replacement for family. We are the extended family. We are like you, but we might also be a nurse on top of being a daughter. We provide a home.’’
Francis House was Osbelt’s vision. In the 1980s, while serving as a chaplain at St. Joseph’s Hospital, she met a young woman with HIV-AIDS. At the time, little was known about the disease, except that there was no cure and there were few places outside of a hospital or nursing home for people with HIV-AIDS to spend their end days. The young woman spent seven months in the hospital before she died.
Osbelt knew there were many others in the community who did not have the support or resources to die at home. She brought her idea to the Sisters of St. Francis, who in turn donated a two-family, circa 1910 house on Michaels Avenue. Local businesses and members of the community donated resources, labor and time to replace the roof and remodel the house in preparation to welcome residents and more than 50 volunteers signed on to help out.
Francis House opened with just two rooms for residents. In 1998, an expansion of the house brought capacity up to eight resident bedrooms, plus kitchen, great room and chapel. Five years later, the house at 114 Michaels Ave. was built. It added eight more rooms and is connected to the original structure. Each room has windows to allow light and the outdoors in. Meals and laundry service are provided. Residents who are able and their families are encouraged to enjoy the gazebo and grounds, meticulously maintained by volunteers.
The average length of stay at Francis House is 22 days, according to development director Beth Lynn Hoey, who has worked at Francis House for 24 years. Care of one person costs approximately $7,500 per month. After residents are accepted, Hoey says, staff members have a confidential conversation with family members about the cost of care and make an ask: Can you help? Not everyone can, but no one is turned away because of lack of resources.
COVID-19 brought unforeseen challenges to Francis House. Residents were consolidated into one eight-room house for a time and volunteers — the heart of the ministry — had to stay home. Admissions were halted for a time to help stem COVID-19 transmission and only pre-approved visitors were allowed in. Families couldn’t gather in groups around their loved ones. Hardest of all, perhaps, no one could hug.
COVID-19 also brought change to Francis House fundraising efforts. The ministry’s annual fundraising gala, “There’s No Place Like Home,’’ moved online in 2020. It’s normally held at the state fairgrounds in Geddes and attended by more than 2,000 guests. The virtual event raised $290,000. All of the ministry’s annual $2.4 million operating budget is raised through donations from the Francis House community, Hoey notes.
One constant at Francis House is the presence of Osbelt. She describes her current role as volunteer. She visits with residents and is a spiritual presence every day.
In recent years, the Francis House leadership has expanded its mission beyond caring for people and their families to sharing their experience and resources with others looking to provide a comfortable place for people to spend their final days. It helped to establish the Omega Home Network, a network of comfort homes across the country. And its annual symposium, “Living the Final Chapter,’’ designed for healthcare professionals, social workers, grief counselors, therapists and anyone involved in providing end of life care, has helped to educate others.
“We want to change how people see death in this country,’’ Osbelt says.
Francis House is at 108 Michaels Ave., Syracuse. For more information, including details on volunteer opportunities and ways to donate, call 315-475-5422 or visit www.francishouseny.org
Photo: Sister Colette Walter with a resident in the first year of ministry. Image courtesy of Francis House.