Most Jesuit provinces have an infirmary for Jesuit priests and brothers who require nursing care and cannot easily live in our more active communities. The Jesuits in English Canada have our infirmary in Pickering, just east of Toronto. René Goupil House is on the grounds of Manresa, a retreat centre, and the La Storta Jesuit Community. Before my present assignment as Superior of the Pickering Jesuits and Director of René Goupil House, I spent five years as novice director at the Jesuit Novitiate in St. Paul, Minnesota. In St. Paul, I was among the oldest members of the community. The novices were mostly young men in their 20s. Here in Pickering, at 57, I am easily the youngest member of the community.
The average age of the Pickering Jesuits is just over 82. Half of the Jesuit community resides at the infirmary. René Goupil House was opened in 1980 and is named for one of the Canadian Jesuit Martyrs, a young man from France whose illnesses required that he leave the Jesuits. He was a skilled surgeon and allowed his gifts to be used by the Jesuits in New France in the 17th century. Even in illness, the men who live at our infirmary have a ministry to pray for the needs of the Church. It is appropriate that these men who have spent their lives in ministry to God’s people would have as their patron a young layman who lived his ministry desires despite his own sufferings in ill health and martyrdom.
From the beginning, we have had a dedicated staff of nurses, personal support workers, cooks, and housekeepers. Our staff members become very close to the Jesuit priests and brothers and the Jesuits become very close to the staff. We have some people on staff who have worked here almost since the beginning. They have nursed, fed and cleaned up after these men. They have grown close to them and watched over thirty years of older Jesuits go to God. One of the beautiful things to watch is an infirmed Jesuit minister to a staff member or visitor who is having life struggles or just needs a listening ear. These older Jesuits have time to listen. They are not glancing at their watches! The Jesuits receive excellent care for all their needs and the staff members receive the benefit of the rich and full lives of these men. I suspect that the relationship between some staff and Jesuits is not that unlike a relationship with a kindly grandfather.
Of course, as nice and comfortable as the surroundings are, and as professional and compassionate as our staff is, this is basically a nursing home. It’s not only made up of Jesuits who are relatively active and able to be engaged with the world. Some of the men are not able to engage with very much. Instead, they minister to us in an indirect way – through their silent presence, by their patience in suffering ailments of the body or mind, and by their humility in being dependent on others. They now know what Jesus meant when he said, “When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” One of the times when the spirit of this place emerges most clearly is when we sense that someone’s time on earth is ending. We start keeping vigil with the Jesuit, not allowing the man to be alone in these final days and hours. There is rarely difficulty getting enough people to sit with the dying man. Though professional, the compassion of our staff shines through. Jesuits stop by and pray. The man’s family comes for a visit. Volunteers come sit and pray.
That same reverence shows itself in our daily Mass. The centre of the day is the 11:30 Mass. In addition to the Jesuits, our daily celebration includes some staff, volunteers and casual visitors (neighbours, family and friends of the resident Jesuits). First-time visitors are often moved by seeing the Jesuit priests extend their hands in concelebration. Even in their weakness and vulnerability, they recall their priesthood.
In a future posting, I’ll talk about some of the life lessons I am being taught by working with older and infirm men. I’m also learning plenty about dementia and physical illnesses. Perhaps I can share my perspective. Meanwhile, we always welcome visitors. Join us for the 11:30 Mass. Or, just come and hang out with men who have many stories to tell from their long, rich lives.