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Cherie Blair

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Freedom of the City bestowed on Jospice

From Professor Lord Alton of Liverpool's Universe Column

This week the City of Liverpool will be honouring the signal achievements of one of its favourites sons. From his celestial vantage point the late Fr Francis O'Leary, Founder of Jospice, will see the Lord Mayor and City Council confer the Freedom of the City on his charity. It's especially appropriate that this ceremony will come just a few days after the celebration of the feast of St Joseph, to whom Fr Frank had a great devotion, and to whom his hospices and palliative care provision were dedicated.

Father Francis O'Leary was a very shy, sincere and determined man, wanted little for himself, simple in his needs but a heart of gold when it came to caring for those less fortunate. He was a man who had time for everybody and everything and never thought of his own needs.

The son of a coal merchant, the family moved to Crosby when Frank was very young. At the age of 11 he entered the Mill Hill seminary in Freshfield, where his mother and sister would visit at the weekend to pass him sweets through the fence. In his early days he knew how to raise money - something that came in very useful in later life for the charity. It's said that he would disappear into the confessional box and somehow come out with the football or cricket scores, and his pocket money would be boosted by selling this information on to fellow students.

After ordination, Father was sent on his first assignment to Westbridge in Rawalpindi Pakistan. It was there that his eyes and heart were opened to the abject poverty and need for tangible love and care. It was here that he had a dying lady whom he found on the street brought to the convent where he was staying, and had her nursed in a little mud hut until her death - this was the start of Jospice International. On returning home he started an appeal in his home town of Crosby and within twelve months a centre to care for the poor, destitute and dying was built - tremendous testimony to a young nervous Priest.

His work continued as a priest in the many areas of Central and South America to which his Bishop sent him and "Jospice" followed him in as much as hospices, clinics and dispensaries were opened in many remote areas of some of the poorest areas of the world.

Even today many of the these clinics are still functioning, mainly supported by the local community of the town or village, or with Jospice still giving financial aid where it is needed most. There was no school, church or community group that could say no to Father in helping support his work.

The charity initially worked out of the offices of the Liverpool Archdiocese, but in the early 70s Father Frank's dream was for the Jospice to have its own offices, but also a centre to care for the people of Liverpool who were dying and who had nobody to care for them or who were marginalised in society. Knowing that a large house in Thornton Woods was coming up for auction he sent a couple of people in to bid for him, and the property was bought for £90,000. Suddenly Jospice owned a large rambling property in acres of woodland but had no money to pay for it. This started a massive campaign of fundraising with Father O'Leary visiting every bank manager he could get access to in order to raise the funds.

In later years, when the Queen conferred the MBE on Fr Frank, I met the bank manager who had probably taken a very deep breath when he agreed to lend Fr.Frank the money to buy the house. The priest had given the manager, as his three references and guarantors, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph." Quite what head office made of that I don't know.

That same bank manager would actually die in Jospice some twenty years later. He was being cared for at home and the family were struggling to cope and, like so many others, they turned to Father O'Leary. There's something very appropriate about that story - illustrating as it does how an act of generosity and faith would itself be repaid.

In just over twelve months the money was repaid to the bank, and on 19 March 1974 the first hospice in Liverpool opened - in fact, one of the first hospices in the country. To begin with it had just five beds but the demand from families who needed support caring for a loved one soon became very apparent, and it wasn't long before Jospice was running to full capacity.

To continue supporting the overseas work and then taking on this huge commitment for the day to day costs of the hospices was crippling for the charity. But Father Frank had complete and utter faith in the power of prayer and that the Lord would provide. Indeed he did on many occasions. However it was not without the incredible hard work of Father Frank, the early management team and many others who carried the charity through many difficult years.

Nearly 40 years on from opening the first hospice in Liverpool, Jospice today is a wonderfully bright hospice, being able to nurse up to 29 patients in two buildings on the site. It's a home from home setting and families and friends are cared for as much as the patient. Nothing is too much trouble for the staff as they lovingly care for those people who need terminal care. Jospice is a Catholic charity but cares for people of all religions or none. There is a wonderfully rich history that can be told by everyone who has been touched by the work of Jospice.

I know how fortunate I was to be touched by the life of this remarkable priest. The introduction to his autobiography states that his is "The story of an irrepressible spirit and magnificent dreams......some fulfilled". As a Vice President of his charity, which continues to undertake such important work both locally and internationally, I see his work fulfilled and continuing, like life itself, beyond the grave. Jospice, and hospices like it, stand as a loving and kind rebuke to those who would substitute a good death with the defeat which euthanasia and the lethal injection represent.

Father Frank always insisted that whatever you put in to life, you receive back tenfold - and Liverpool is right to celebrate the work of a man whose efforts have been repaid many times over through the love, care and dignity in dying which Jospice has given countless terminally ill people and their grieving families.

Jospice website