Every so often, an alumni story comes along that leaves you in awe.  A story where faith meets action and love lifts up those in unimaginable circumstances. Jonathan Heller’s story is that story.

When Jonathan came to Marian University’s Thanatology Program, he and his wife, Layne, had already started Casa Ahava, the first hospice in Mozambique. They saw a need in this nation, one of the poorest in the world, to help cancer patients traveling thousands of miles from the northern part of the country to find treatment in the capital, Maputo, in the south.  Many of these patients came without family, because their families had to stay home to work their farms.

“Before the creation of Casa Ahava, the pattern was for them to die alone and in the hospital,” said Jonathan. “Our home is simply a place for them to have a family and a community on the hard road of cancer, treatment, and when necessary, dying.”

This month, Casa Ahava celebrates its 10-year anniversary.

Jonathan, who was raised in Chandler, Arizona, was running the IT department for an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) in Botswana, when he met his wife, Layne, from Corpus Christi, Texas. After a mission trip working with AIDS orphans in Uganda, the Hellers explored doing the same in Mozambique. Jonathan explains the change:

“Upon discovery of the pattern of Mozambicans traveling so far to receive cancer care, nearly always arriving when it was far too late to pursue any curative options, we petitioned the Mozambican Health Ministry to permit us to invite these cancer refugees into our own home. At the time we did not know it was called hospice to invite the dying to come stay with us. We simply saw that they were dying alone and wished to offer a family and home to those who had neither, while they died.”

As their project grew, the two looked for online programs to further their training in attending to the sick and the dying. Jonathan found Marian University of Wisconsin’s Master of Science in Thanatology Program.  Thanatology is the study of death, dying, grieving and loss. It’s a practice of helping people make sense of significant life events… a death of someone close, a terminal diagnosis or even a suicide. Marian’s students are doctors, nurses, funeral directors, teachers, clergy, counselors, hospice workers and more.

“That was my first exposure to the very idea of Thanatology and I realized I had already been in the field unaware for a few years at that point,” said Jonathan.

“While I completed my degree in Thanatology, my wife was busy completing her own Master’s degree in Palliative Care (University of Maryland). We are both far more comfortable and skilled in our service to the patients we host at Casa Ahava because of our further study.”

What did Jonathan like about Marian University’s Thanatology Program?  “The community of professors and students created an incredibly creative and dynamic learning environment,” he said.

Their mission has grown and the Hellers have grown too.  While in Mozambique, they have had four beautiful daughters.

“I hope to continue to serve and offer a home to the sick and dying here in Maputo, Mozambique for as long as the need remains, as long as Mozambique will have me, and as long as I encounter the mercy to begin again each morning.”

Learn more about Jonathan and Layne Heller and Casa Ahava: www.casaahava.org

Learn more about Marian University’s Master of Science in Thanatology: