The impact made by a charity born from one man’s vision to offer terminally ill people ‘something better’ was celebrated on Thursday with a special service on its 30th anniversary.
Canon Richard Norburn is credited with founding St Nicholas Hospice Care, though he himself credits a higher power.
The hospice president, who remains a trustee for the Bury St Edmunds charity, said: “When people ask if I’m the founding father of the hospice I say ‘no, I’m not, God is and I was simply the channel’.”
The 81-year-old was inspired to set up the charity after witnessing, as rector of Ingham with Ampton and Great & Little Livermere, the suffering of three families at a similar time – a father who was in and out of hospital, an elderly woman whose lame husband was struggling to care for her and a grandmother with cancer whose daughter felt unable to help.
He said: “All three were terminally ill and I thought there ought to be something better for these people than the treatment they were getting at the time.”
He recalls being overcome by guilt when a house he had identified as possibly being suitable was sold without him having made any effort to buy it.
He said: “The old rectory in Ingham came on the market. I thought it might make a hospice – I didn’t really known anything about hospices but I knew they were for people with these kind of conditions – but I didn’t do anything about it. It was sold and I have never in my life felt so guilty.”
Canon Norburn, who was also rural dean of Thingoe and chairman of Churches Together in Bury and District, added: “But a fortnight later, God is so merciful that it was back on the market. The sale had fallen through so I said I’d try and do something and started talking to people in churches.”
At the suggestion of the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, The Right Rev John Waine, Canon Norburn went to see a hospice being built in Stafford and returned with the conviction to bring his vision to life.
“It was just total confirmation that this was what we had to it, that this was right,” he said, admitting that he gets ‘weepy’ whenever he tells the story.
The hospice – which takes its name from one of Bury’s seven Medieval ‘hospices’, the remnants of which can still be seen in Eastgate Street – did not actually purchase Ingham’s old rectory.
It held committee meetings there, with the owner’s permission, and, on May 1, 1984, its first nurse, June Shields née Storey, started going out into the community to support people in need of end-of-life care, joined shortly after by two others.
“We decided we wanted to get care to people as quickly as we could that didn’t depend on having a building or beds to put people in because that takes time to achieve. So we said we wanted to start with a nurse going out into the community, helping people where they were,” said Canon Norburn.
The hospice’s first appeal, for £1.2 million, was launched the following month and by December of that year it had bought Turret Close in Westgate Street, opening a day centre there in July, 1986.
Canon Norburn said Turret Close was chosen for its central location and the possibility of building on its land but, although it served the hospice ’very well’ for around a decade, allowing it to offer day therapy sessions, it could not accommodate an inpatient ward.
By the time the health authority offered the charity the land it currently occupies in Hardwick Lane, it was ready to move, recognising the advantages of working closely with the hospital.
It launched its second appeal in June 1991, this time for £2.5 million, and by November had laid the first foundation stone of its new purpose-built hospice.
Canon Norburn cut the turf on the new ground in June 1991 and says ‘one of the most moving experiences’ he ever had was seeing the hospice completed for the first time.
It opened in 1993, offering a bedded ward, day therapy and family support, and welcomed Diana, Princess of Wales, to its official opening in July of that year.
Canon Norburn, a father-of-four, said: “I was thrilled that it had happened, grateful to God for guiding it and thrilled with residents of the community who had made it possible and raised the money.”
He added: “We were living hand-to-mouth, not sure of where we were going to go, but we were sure of the vision, that what we were doing was right. It’s just been so exciting to see it develop. I always talk about the hospice family – the paid staff, the volunteers and the families we’re serving – they’re all part of our family and I think it’s tremendous the way it builds relationships like that.”
Today, the hospice has more than 650 volunteers who, with the help of multi-disciplinary teams of professions, support more than 2,500 local families each year.
It offers a range of services including Hospice Neighbours - launched in 2010 to help people with small tasks that make life tough when they are ill – and Monday drop-in sessions offering people affected by bereavement or illness the opportunity to meet.
And it continues to go from strength to strength with recent developments including its new retail centre which opened on Moreton Hall, Bury, last year and its first outreach centre, Haverhill’s Burton Centre, which is due to open later this month.
Canon Norburn, who was made an MBE in 1997, said: “It’s a bit of a wonder to me the way the community has taken the hospice to its heart.”
He added: “I’d like to see a Burton Centre in every place where we have a shop. That’s what we need, local centres, and we need more and more care in peoples’ homes and to make sure people have a choice of where they want to die, as much as possible.”
Of Canon Norburn, Barbara Gale, chief executive of the hospice, said: “It’s a real privilege to still have our founding father. He’s such an inspiration, so supportive and so forward-thinking.
“I’ve tried to be true to his original vision by keeping that feeling of being part of the community, caring for people at home, and also by driving forward innovation.”
She said she was particularly proud of having launched Hospice Neighbours, and of the Burton Centre in which she sees ‘synergy’ with where the hospice started and her vision for its future.
“If Haverhill does really well I’d hope we would replicate that outreach centre model elsewhere, delivering care in partnership with the community and making services really work for them,” she said.
Reflecting on the hospice’s success over the past three decades, Mrs Gale added: “We wouldn’t be here without the support of the community, the events they’ve done, the legacies they’ve left us and the hundreds of thousands of volunteers we’ve had over the years – we couldn’t run this service without the support of volunteers.
“I just want to say an enormous thank you to everybody for making 30 years possible – it’s a great achievement.”
To find out more about the hospice, go to www.stnicholashospicecare.org.uk