A Child’s Legacy Guides Hospice Volunteer

See how God's love shows us the way of lifeRule of Benedict

When Sr. Catherine Maloney met David, the seven-year-old boy was losing his battle with cancer. A new hospital chaplain, she was especially moved by him and wanted to do everything she could to ease his pain and worry. Instead, he eased hers, teaching her much of what she needed to know for the ministry that she continues today. The lesson he offered – that the best thing you can do for a critically ill patient is whatever the patient wants – came only a week before he died.

"David had the heart of all children," Sr. Catherine remembers. "He didn't fear death. An angel seemed to sit on his shoulder and guide him along. He was sorry to be leaving his parents, though. He drew a picture for me of the apples he wouldn't be able to pick with his father.

"David helped me understand that my job was not to preach, but to honor and respect the wishes of the patient. He helped me understand that my job would often be to help patients on the road to heaven. He helped me understand that patients would be less agitated and more willing to let go of life if their wishes were honored." That lesson happened during David's First Communion.

"All of the kids in his second-grade class had made their First Communion," Sr. Catherine remembers. "I asked him if he wanted to make his, and he said he did. So we made all these adult decisions about it. We brought balloons and gifts and invited a lot of guests. When the day came, we went into his room and he said he didn't want to do it after all. We were all stunned. I asked him privately, David, is there a better time or way to do this? And he said, Yes. I want my mommy to bake the bread. I went out and told his parents and the priest, and everyone agreed to do it. So we all came back the next day with his mother's bread, and he made his First Communion. Thank God we did what he wanted. It made him so happy. He died a week later. I've used that lesson throughout my ministry."

Although she is officially retired now, Sr. Catherine's ministry continues as a hospice volunteer. All four of her current patients live in a beautiful, 150-year-old mansion in central Davenport that was converted into an elder housing facility 13 years ago. Immaculately kept and furnished in period pieces – minus the recliners - it feels both orderly and welcoming.

"Good morning," Sr. Catherine sings out as she enters the living room. Two residents doze in front of a TV with the sound turned off. They wake up and chat for a few minutes before drifting off again. The other two patients are resting upstairs with a Yorkshire terrior.

"These people become part of my life," Sr. Catherine says. "They become part of my soul, part of my heart. To be able to listen and care opens up my world. I walk away feeling like I've gained more than the people I've visited. I am more alive when I can be of some meaningful assistance to others.

"When I visit a patient, I try to find out what she wants," Sr. Catherine says. "Many, many times I have asked What can I do for you today? and the patient has said Just hold me, and I do that. Sometimes they want me to pray with them or give them a blessing, but I don't force it. I'm so grateful for what I learned from David all those years ago. Recently, I attended a meeting with other volunteers, and one of them said he was planning to do thus and such with his patients. I told him, If you have an agenda, you're not going to be able to hear what your patients need. It's something, isn't it, what you can learn from a child?"