Where Angels Dare to Tread

Author: Walton R. Collins '51


It’s lunchtime in a homelike residence on Cleveland’s near west side, and eight people are seated at the table. There’s a choice of two soups today, onion or shrimp-garlic. There’s also a baked tuna dish, some leafy salad with a selection of dressings, and either fruit pies or mint cookies for desert. Or both. Conversation is relaxed and cheerful, with a touch of family-style bantering and lots of compliments for the cook.

But none of the people at the table are related to one another. And two of them will soon be dead.

Seven hundred and fifty men and women have died in this red brick building since it opened in 1988. An unobtrusive plaque by the front door reads: Malachi House. This is a place where terminally ill people spend their last days — if they’re poor and have no one to take care of them.

Malachi House is not a hospice or a nursing home. It has no governmental affiliations or support. It’s a private facility that can accommodate only 10 residents at a time, although its capacity will climb to 18 when an addition is completed in October. None of the residents pays a penny for staying here. They have to meet only two criteria: They must have less than six months to live and be unable to afford other care.

Malachi House owes its existence to hundreds of volunteers who play checkers with dying residents, keep the grounds neat, cook and serve food, raise money, handle housekeeping chores and write thank-you notes. One of those volunteers is Daniel B. Cotter ’75, a Cleveland financial planner who stepped down as chairman of the Malachi House board at the beginning of this year and now serves as one of two life trustees of the institution.

Cotter is one of the volunteers at the lunch table today; other diners include staff members and two of the three ambulatory residents currently staying at the home. Inevitably, as the table talk continues, one of the diners starts telling an Angel Story. Angel Stories are much-repeated tales about memorable people and events over the years that constitute the mythology of the home, and several of them have been collected into a small booklet. Here’s the Angel Story Dan Cotter likes to tell best:

“This man had been with us for eight months, and he was one of the favorites in the house. As he got close to death he became very quiet and sullen and resorted to staying in his room, although he had always been full of jokes at the dinner table before. The director asked him, ’What’s going on?’ ‘You can’t help me with this one,’ the man insisted repeatedly. But finally he revealed that he had a son with whom he’d had a falling out: ‘We lost touch 15 years ago. The last I heard, he was in the Army.’ The director said, ‘Why don’t we just say a prayer that God will take care of it?’

“Well,” Cotter continues the tale, "before we ever had a chance to do a thing, we got a call from a military officer in West Germany asking if this resident was in our home. His son, said the officer, had heard from a source from a source from a source that his father might be in a place called Malachi House. The director said, ‘You get his son’s butt home now.’ He said, ’Ma’am, I gotta fill out paperwork.’ She said, ‘I don’t care about paperwork, get him home now because his father doesn’t have long to live.’

“So they put him on a plane and he flew home. The dad sat on the porch waiting, and finally the cab pulled up and this handsome black man gets out in full uniform and they embrace in tears. The father died the next morning.”

Cotter likes to tell this story in his fund-raising talks, but sometimes, when he does, he chokes up at the climax.

Since the home opened in 1988, and even a little before that, Cotter’s role has focused on fundraising. Finding the money to keep Malachi House going is no small challenge. From the beginning, the home has been steadfastly independent. It chose not to become a hospice because of the paperwork and expenses that would impose. Yet its annual budget is a healthy $700,000, of which half a million is contributed by a donor base of more than 14,000 people and the rest is interest from a $5 million endowment, which came from various contributions, gifts and grants from foundations over the years.

Malachi House is an offspring of Saint Malachi’s Church, once upon a time the magnet parish for Cleveland’s Irish population. Some 20 years ago its pastor, Father Paul Hritz, was prompted by neighborhood conditions to start a soup kitchen for the homeless and free treatment for alcoholics. When a wealthy parishioner died in 1986, her will revealed she had left the parish four abandoned, rundown row houses her family owned.

As the parish pondered what to do with them, another parishioner, Catherine O’Neill, came forward to suggest turning the gift property into a place where the dying who have nowhere to go could spend their last days. Many obstacles and a few novenas later, the four houses were blended into one and extensively refurbished, largely by volunteer labor with donated materials. And in 1988, Malachi House opened its doors.

Most of the home’s residents are referred by social workers at 10 affiliated hospices in Ohio; other referrals come from physicians, nurses and, occasionally, a spouse who is unable to provide the support a dying person needs. Malachi House provides no medical care; when physicians, nurses and social workers are required, they come from the referring hospices or hospitals.

Josie Gaughan, the administrator of Malachi House, says the youngest resident ever to stay there was 26, the oldest 102. Some residents were living on the streets before being admitted. Says Gaughan, “They get a chest X-ray when they come in, and we require a physician’s statement. We ask about their financial situation, but we take their word for it. We accept people with AIDS. Sometimes we accept patients for a short-term stay, five to seven days, to give their families a respite.”

Gaughan slides deftly into another Angel Story: “We once had a family, a husband and a wife with seven children, that moved to Cleveland from Florida looking for work. The husband came down with incurable cancer, and the wife was exhausted trying to take care of him and also earn some money. Even though she was on welfare she ran out of food. The oldest child was 8, and two of the children were twins. It was devastating, they had nothing, and the man was only in his 30s. So we took him in and this allowed her to be able to care for the kids. When they all came here to visit it was like a kindergarten.” Like most Angel Stories, this one ends with a smile on the storyteller’s face.

Another Angel Story has special appeal for Carrie Bell, who coordinates Malachi House’s volunteers: “A woman from Alabama retired and came to live in Cleveland with a daughter who was unable to care for her. When the woman arrived at Malachi House she was very quiet and introverted, even fearful, because the only experience she had had with people not of her own race was as their servant. It was difficult for her to begin to trust us and to learn that we just cared for her, that it was okay for her to be whoever she wanted to be and we were gonna love her just the same. I used to bring my puppy to work with me, and she loved that puppy. I’d walk in the door and she’d say, ’Where’s my puppy?’ And he loved her, and they would sit every day and he would sleep in her lap and she was just in seventh heaven.”

To keep residents motivated and challenged, Malachi House now has in place a life enrichment program. It started with art therapy and soon expanded to include music therapy and massage therapy. Cotter is partial to an Angel Story drawn from art therapy: “One person kept drawing jockeys on horses, and we asked him why. He said he’d been a jockey, and he poured out a whole spiel about his life on horses. Two days before he died he started drawing a horse with the jockey facing backward. On the last drawing he did, there was no jockey, just the horse.”

Working and volunteering at Malachi House keeps people on an emotional roller coaster, since a day inevitably comes when a resident who has become a friend is gone. Josie Gaughan says the employees and volunteers deal with death in individual ways. “When somebody is dying,” she says, “the caretaker may just sit with that person. It’s very painful. We provide facilitator meetings for our staff at least once a month, and our facilitator is always there for the staff. But the average stay for staff is two to three years, because they just get torn apart.”

Malachi House is nondenominational, but spiritual support is always available to the residents. “When persons are in the final stages of life,” says Gaughan, “they want compassion. They want someone who’s going to help them eat, dress and clean themselves. They want someone to hold their hand. If they want a priest or a minister — it makes no difference what their religion is, we’ll bring them in.”

Nothing would make Dan Cotter happier than to see homes like this sprout up in a lot of American cities. A booklet published last year gives a blueprint for cloning Malachi House, and he’ll gladly send a copy to all interested comers.

“This is a place that’s done more to reaffirm people’s faith in God than most things,” he says. “When you’re dealing with life and death, when everybody you’re around doesn’t have long to live, it gives different meaning to a Thanksgiving, to a Christmas. It gives different meaning to loss of family. We try to see to it that they become family when they’re here.”

One unique ritual of the home reinforces that family atmosphere: When a resident dies, the bed is left empty for a couple of days out of respect, and a heart-shaped pillow and a red rose are placed on it.

Walt Collins is the former editor of this magazine.

Photo by Matt Cashore

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