Jeanne Garnier, one of the pioneers of palliative care, on the path to sainthood

Jeanne Garnier, one of the pioneers of palliative care, on the path to sainthood

Who is Jeanne Garnier (1811-1853)?

A young woman from the lower middle-class merchants of Lyon, Jeanne married Jean-Etienne Garnier in 1832. But two years later, she was already experiencing the ordeal of widowhood. Worse still: she also lost her two young children. For this young woman from Lyon, the suffering is terrible and the depression severe. She would later say that while going to the cemetery every day to cry over the deceased, she ran across the bridge that led there, so as not to be overtaken by the dark thoughts of throwing herself into the river.

Take care until the end

The intuition thus took shape following a retreat at the Ardèche sanctuary of Notre-Dame-d’Ay which allowed him to make his choice in prayer. With two other women, also affected by widowhood, the desire to take care of the “incurably abandoned” is transformed into an assistance association. A project marked by the Christian call for active charity for widowed women and which was quickly recognized by the local bishop, Cardinal de Bonald.

Thus were born the “Ladies of Calvary” on December 8, 1842, on this feast of the Immaculate conception of the Virgin which, ten years later, would be celebrated in an increasingly visible manner until it became the festival of lights that we knows today. This year 1852 is also the beginning of a new stage. With six other “Ladies”, Jeanne bought an estate on the slopes of the Lyon hill of Fourvière, the Cols de la Sara. A year later, after the necessary development work, around fifty incurable people began to be welcomed. But Jeanne has used up her last strength in the adventure. She died on December 28, 1853 at the age of 42. The Lyon house will be at the origin of the Fourvière Hospital.

“It is to her that we owe the first use of the word “hospice” to designate only institutions for the care of the dying, explains Cicely Saunders, British doctor, founder of the first modern palliative care center, the Saint Christopher Hospice, in England. The term “hospice” comes from the Latin “hospes” which first meant “host”, then later “stranger”. A term which means a welcoming place and which underlines the relationship between the host and the “foreign. In many countries, especially in French-speaking countries, you have adopted the term “palliative care” (…). We have learned a lot from our patients and their families: pain relief, reconciliation towards oneself and towards others, inner peace and tranquility. Death can be the most important period of our life. Jeanne Garnier created her house because she listened to the people who needed it.”

A house at the forefront of palliative care

Because the matter did not end there. Twenty years after the death of Jeanne Garnier, a similar house opened in Paris in 1874. There too, widows and single women welcomed people in great pain, relieving them in particular with painkillers such as morphine, and accompanying them in their end of life.

The association was finally recognized as being of public utility in 1923. After the war, the Parisian house became a place recognized by medical authorities for the quality of the service provided in supporting people until death, in an ethical manner. demanding medical conditions and an assumed Christian humanism.

“Welcome, care for, relieve and support patients at the end of their lives, seeking neither to unduly prolong their lives nor to cause their death”, this is the overall ambition. The Curie foundation, created in 1920, and specialized in the treatment of cancer, is getting closer and closer to the Maison du Calvaire in Paris.

Jeanne Garnier, soon to be a saint?

In the fall of 2022, the diocese of Lyon opened a canonical investigation with a view to his beatification. Three historians thus questioned the sources, verified the veracity of the facts and interviewed witnesses to assess the importance of the legacy that Jeanne Garnier leaves behind her. First step completed: the file will be transmitted in September to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, in Rome.

There remains a long way to go. The cause being opened, the phase of the “trial” begins to establish the “reputation of holiness”. Point by point, the court must demonstrate that the candidate has lived all the Christian virtues in a “heroic” way: Faith, hope, charity, for the theological virtues. Prudence, strength, temperance and justice for those cardinals. Rome, again, requires precise facts, each piece must be examined.

Once “the heroicity of the virtues” of the established person promulgated by decree, it is still necessary to prove that a miracle – at least – could have been accomplished through his intercession. Which, in the case of Jeanne Garnier, has not (yet) happened. In Lyon and elsewhere, Catholics pray to his intercession to hope for a miracle in the years to come.

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