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Anne D. McCouch, Wellness Place founder, dies at 80

THERE AREN'T many shocks to a person's psyche more severe than a cancer diagnosis. Anne McCouch once said that many people's immediate reaction is, "I'm going to die!"

THERE AREN'T many shocks to a person's psyche more severe than a cancer diagnosis.

Anne McCouch once said that many people's immediate reaction is, "I'm going to die!"

Not necessarily, or, at least, not immediately. Take Anne, for example. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 23 years ago and it spread to her spleen, bowels and bladder.

A death sentence if ever there were one. But Anne, who once said of herself, "You can't keep a good Irish girl down," continued to live and thrive, eventually opening a center to help others with cancer.

Anne D. McCouch died Tuesday, after deciding to stop the kidney dialysis she had been on since September. She was 80 and was living in Huntingdon Valley, but had previously lived in Harleysville, in Montgomery County.

When Anne came to realize she wasn't going to die for a while, she began to ponder why she was being spared.

"I said: 'God, you're leaving me here for a reason. But you're going to have to tell me what to do.' "

She got what she interpreted as a sign when, over a cup of tea with a friend who was a cancer patient, she discovered that she had a knack for comforting people in distress.

Word got around about this compassionate woman and her words of wisdom, tinged with a belief in the healing power of religious faith.

By 1994, patients were crowding her house and she went to the parish priest of Corpus Christi Church in Lansdale with the idea to start a cancer-support group at the church.

She founded a resource center for cancer patients that helped hundreds of people deal with the disease.

From that beginning, Wellness Place was founded in 1999 in a former physician's home in Lansdale.

Patients and volunteers flocked to this fresh idea that offered something the medical community couldn't.

Volunteers helped get patients to doctor's appointments and drugstores, and prepare meals for those who couldn't get around.

Hairdressers, chiropractors and others chipped in.

There were setbacks. The center lost a couple of locations, but, after receiving a grant from Montgomery County, settled into the Lansdale Schwenkfelder Church and then Luther Hall at Trinity Church in Lansdale.

"She was a great humanitarian and the quintessential caregiver," said her daughter Maureen Pody. "She literally helped hundreds of cancer patients and their families."

Janet Stankus, a longtime friend, said she had a vision of what her friend might turn out to be when both were in a Passion play at Corpus Christi Church 30 years ago.

"Anne played the Blessed Mother," Stankus said. While Anne didn't aspire to sainthood, she was, as Stankus said, "a beautiful woman, very spiritual."

"She was the kind of person you'd do anything for," Stankus said. "She wanted to help."

Anne was born in South Philadelphia to Gaetano Diodato and the former Anna Murphy. She graduated from South Philadelphia High School for Girls. She worked for a time as a model and was a contestant in the Miss Philadelphia contest at age 17.

"She asked a friend to be in the pageant, but her friend didn't have any shoes," her daughter said. "So my mom gave high heels to her friend to wear."

The friend won the pageant in the height category.

"Even at 17, she was kind and generous," her daughter said. "She was a beautiful woman inside and out."

In her last few weeks, Anne's family and friends gathered to support her.

"Her source of strength was her family and friends," her daughter said. "They were her oxygen."

In 2006, the Wellness Community of Philadelphia merged with Wellness Place and the center was renamed the Wellness Community at the Anne McCouch Center.

Anne won numerous honors for her work over the years. In 2006, on a cold rainy October day, several hundred people gathered under a tent at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale to honor Anne on the occasion of her stepping down as executive director of Wellness Place.

Among the nattily dressed crowd were several members of the Blue Comet Motorcycle Club in their full biker regalia. They had come to present a $3,000 check to the center.

When Anne spotted them from the stage, she insisted that they join her there.

Hesitant at first, the bikers finally mounted the stage.

"The bikers have heart," she told the audience.

"Remember that next time you pass them on the road."

After the speeches were over, this daughter of South Philly kicked off her shoes and danced in a circle on the wet grass to the music of a Mummers band.

Besides her daughter, she is survived by her husband of 61 years, William McCouch Sr.; another daughter, Anne Mastif; five sons, Matthew, Christopher, William Jr., Michael and Robert; two brothers, James and Frank Diodato; 12 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

Services: Funeral Mass 11 a.m. tomorrow at Corpus Christi Church, 900 Sumneytown Pike, Lansdale. Friends may call at 8:30 a.m. Burial will be private.