Jeanie Williams, R.N., takes
the blood pressure of Sam
Antronica at St. Christine
Parish in Youngstown, Ohio,
after a recent Sunday Mass.
This screening is part of the
Health and Wellness Ministry
started in 1998.
PHOTO BY RICK WALKER
LONG BEFORE health-care
reform spawned a national
debate, health and parish
nurse ministries sponsored
by Catholic organizations
were quietly addressing health needs on
the local level. At St. John Health System
in Detroit, Michigan, the center's
parish nursing program designed Walk
to Jerusalem and Walk to Bethlehem to
promote exercise with a spiritual
At St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish
and the Brother Francis Shelter for the
homeless, both in Anchorage, Alaska,
foot clinics address health issues and
provide referrals to community
At the International Parish Nurse
Resource Center in St. Louis, Missouri,
workshops on medication management,
safe driving and appropriate dental
care explore relationships among
lifestyle, faith and health.
And at St. Christine Parish in Youngstown,
Ohio, health fairs and yoga
classes, plus gifts of homemade bread and soup, create a holistic atmosphere
for healthy living.
Jesus' commission to heal means that
we must connect faith and health. Most
of the time, Christians have made that
connection. Early on, Christians
embraced actions such as anointing with oil for healing. Medieval monks
and nuns transformed monasteries into
hospitals. And religious orders of men
and women established most American
During other periods of history, the
Church's ambivalence toward scientific
advances in medicine relegated its
role to healing souls only. It wasn't
until the 1800s, characterized by few
social services and widespread disease,
that the Church renewed its commitment
to serving the infirm.
Today, parish nurse and health ministries
utilize workshops, retreats and
special events to address physical, emotional
and spiritual needs within the
context of a faith community.
One of the proponents of partnering
health care and parish communities is
Robert Kinast, founder and former
director of the Center for Theological
Reflection in Indian Rocks Beach,
Florida. During the past 30 years, Kinast
has taught, written and lectured on
various topics of pastoral care and
Kinast notes the role of the laity is to
spread the gospel in societal settings.
Fostering healthy living and partnering
with local health organizations results
in enrichment and growth for the entire
parish, he says. "When a parish affirms
the meaning of life even in the midst
of pain and suffering, by caring for the
sick, consoling the grieving, alleviating
poverty, confronting neighborhood
problems, it is contributing to healthy
living," Kinast writes in "Healthcare
and the Catholic Parish," Chicago Studies (December 1996).
Those words provided inspiration and
direction for Humility of Mary Sister
Anne McManamon. Sister Anne was a
pastoral associate at St. Christine Parish
in Youngstown, Ohio, from 1996 to
2009. She originated the parish's Health
and Wellness Ministry 12 years ago.
Dr. Pat Miller, a member of St.
Christine Parish and current chair of
the Health and Wellness Ministry,
organized health fairs as part of her
private practice in internal medicine.
"Over and over in my years of practice,
I saw a lot of psychological fatigue,
individuals being tired and more susceptible
to other illnesses. You can't
separate the physical, mental and spiritual,"
Advocates of health ministry strive
to raise awareness of body, mind and
spirit issues as central to the faith and
parish community. While raising awareness,
St. Christine's Health and Wellness
Committee also sought to remove
barriers that inhibit participation in
parish life. "That's the whole message
and the beauty of this ministry," says
Health promotion and disease prevention
are interwoven throughout the St.
Christine Health and Wellness Ministry's
biennial health fairs. Its first,
conducted in the spring of 1999, featured
50 exhibitors. Ten years later, the
sixth health fair attracted 62 exhibitors
and 350 attendees.
"We do it every other year to give the
volunteers a break and time for new
things to be available in medicine and
in the community," says Dr. Miller.
Planning for the holistic health fairs
takes five to six months.
The goal of parish nurse and health
ministries is to transform the faith community
into a source of health and
healing by offering physical screenings,
social services, stress reduction and
alternative medicine. Except for some minimal costs for blood work, all
screenings and activities are free. St.
Christine also provides a warm meal at
no charge. Donations and one fund-raiser
within the medical community
cover expenses, says Dr. Miller.
That parish's health and wellness
team, currently composed of 50 members,
also offers workshops and lectures
in years when there is no health fair.
Past topics have included community
care options for a handicapped child
living at home when the parent can
no longer function as the chief caregiver,
living wills, rehabilitation options
and grief associated with chronic or
life-threatening illness. "These are issues
that grip people with fear," says Sister
To alleviate that fear, health ministries
provide an avenue of hope while
parish nurses develop trusting relationships
with parishioners of all ages. In
turn, parishioners are afforded opportunities
for faith-centered reflections
on health issues before they arise, as
well as events to socialize, relax and
One of the more popular events
sponsored by St. Christine's Health and
Wellness Ministry is "Ladies' Night
Out." This event features a gourmet
meal, fashion show, relaxation and spa
therapies, along with a drumming circle.
Since its inception in 2006, the
event has grown from one night of 50
reservations to two nights of 96 attendees
"'Ladies' Night Out' is touching the
heart of the question that people are
stretched beyond words," says Sister
Anne. Special touches for the October
evening include a tuxedo-clad gentleman
escorting the ladies to tables
adorned with seasonal flower arrangements,
along with piano music provided
by Msgr. David Rhodes, pastor of
St. Christine Parish.
While parish health ministries throughout
the United States draw large
numbers of both volunteers and participants,
health-centered endeavors are
unique in many areas.
Exact numbers of participating faith communities are not available. "Way
less than half" of America's 19,000
Catholic parishes, however, presently
have a parish nurse, according to
Maureen Daniels, R.N., M.S.N., director
of international programs and coordinators'
support for the International
Parish Nurse Resource Center and a
leader in the Catholic parish nursing
Daniels estimates that 15 percent of
parishes in the St. Louis Archdiocese
have a parish nurse program. Similar
statistics are believed to be true of parish
"In today's world where 47 million
people [living in the United States]
have no health insurance, we are
flooded with all kinds of needs. Parish
nurse and health ministries can help
address these needs and intentionally
include the spiritual as well," says
Parish nurses offer these services:
• monitoring health conditions,
• screening for early signs of illness,
• providing classes and information to encourage healthy behaviors,
• intervening for those with
• offering referrals,
• training and coordinating volunteers,
• starting support groups,
• helping individuals navigate
today's complex health system,
• and building bridges to manage
chronic disease with support
from the parish congregation.
"Parish nurses save lives every day by
their care, compassion, advocacy and
journeying with others," says Daniels.
Since 2005, parish nursing in the Archdiocese
of Anchorage, Alaska, has
grown tremendously, says Linda Shepard,
R.N., parish nurse coordinator for
Providence Alaska Health System.
Providence Health and Services was
founded by the Sisters of Providence in
1902 in Nome. Six archdiocesan
parishes had parish nurses in 2005.
Four years later, there are 100 nurses in
50 parishes and the interest is increasing,
That interest comes from two sides,
she says. A nurse may feel called to this
ministry and present the idea to his/her
parish. Or a pastor may believe parish
nursing can benefit his congregation
and encourage a nurse to undertake
the ministry. In either case, those
involved are serving as community
builders while offering hands-on opportunities
for improved vitality.
"Parish nursing is the perfect marriage
of your spiritual dimension and
your academic skills," says Shepard.
In the Archdiocese of Alaska, 2,000
individuals were screened during 2008
and 2009 for high blood pressure and
diabetes. Five hundred of those tested
have been referred to medical professionals
for treatment. Those individuals
are now on medication, have
changed their diets and/or are exercising
more, says Shepard. "Parish nurses
really are health encouragers," she adds.
In the Archdiocese of Detroit, health
ministries include outreach to deaf people
and those afflicted with AIDS, as
well as networks for health-care chaplains
and parish nurses, says Michael
Harning, health and life services coordinator.
"Ministry is truly body and spirit. If there is a deficit in one area, it
affects another. We need to see that
[healthy] balance," Harning says.
The Walk to Jerusalem and Walk to
Bethlehem programs there take participants
on an imaginary trip to the holy
cities as they log their own miles each
week. Walk to Jerusalem begins in January
with the goal of accumulating
enough miles to reach Jerusalem by
Easter. Walk to Bethlehem begins in
September with the intent of arriving in
Bethlehem for Christmas.
Both programs are adaptable for various
age groups and settings and include
devotions specific to Advent and
Lent. Hundreds of parishes across the
country have purchased these trademarked
In addition to physical exercise,
screenings such as blood-pressure
checks after Mass alert individuals to a
silent killer and save lives. Some
parishes in the Detroit Archdiocese
have also done colorectal screenings,
Parish nurses may bring Communion
to the sick or accompany eucharistic
ministers as another set of eyes to
assess the needs of infirm parishioners.
The archdiocese's health ministers have
also conducted workshops for elderly
clergy, presenting practical suggestions
to enhance the quality of life.
Patients and caregivers gain the blessings
of spiritual strength and renewal if
spiritual caregiving is recognized and
nurtured. Caregivers are truly sacraments
of God's love.
Nurturing the entire person is central to
parish health ministry. According to
Msgr. Rhodes of St. Christine's in
Youngstown, "Adult formation includes
all the total aspects of our lives, not
just our spiritual health and growth
but also our physical health and
growth. Anything we do—whether it's
cultural or whether it's in the way of
education, prayer and spiritual formation—all goes together to make a better
Affirming the meaning of life, in
both good and bad times, contributes
to beneficial relationships and vibrant
living, Sister Anne notes. She is especially
grateful for the sense of community
the Health and Wellness Ministry
brings to the volunteers, as well as participants.
Parishioners who were merely
a face at Sunday Mass have connected
for a shared goal and developed friendships,
One commonality in all health ministries
is the commitment to others
through Jesus' example of healing. When
St. Christine's Health and Wellness Ministry
was instituted, its goal was an
increased presence of healing, a greater
sense of community and removal of
health-related barriers to participation
in parish life. Twelve years later, the
outcome has exceeded expectations.
"We didn't go down all the avenues
I anticipated going down but we've
reached these goals. Much of our success
is because of the enthusiasm and
willingness of the people in the ministry
and its uniqueness in parish life,"
says Sister Anne.
Building bridges between the health-care
system and the parish benefits
both sides, believes Sister Anne. To
achieve a manageable undertaking, she
says, "Make sure the ministry remains
a joy to do, there's always prayer at the
base of it and you're always focused
on a simple goal."
To get a parish nurse or health ministry going in your
parish, Sister Anne McManamon, H.M. (former pastoral
associate at St. Christine Parish in Youngstown, Ohio),
Linda Shepard, R.N. (parish nurse coordinator for Providence
Alaska Health System), and Michael Harning
(health and life services coordinator for the Archdiocese
of Detroit) recommend that parishes go through the following
1. Research health ministries through reading, workshops,
attendance at area health ministry/parish
nursing events and Internet searches.
2. Form a committee of parishioners involved in
medical, legal, educational and social-service occupations
to explore needs in your parish.
3. Conduct a health needs assessment of the parish.
4. Set goals and adopt a mission statement to reflect
the parish needs and the intent of your health
5. Invite a diocesan parish nurse coordinator or health
services coordinator to speak to committee members.
6. Identify community resources and establish partnerships
with a local hospital or health system.
7. Explore funding through the parish budget and/or
8. Plan health-promotion programs according to
findings from the needs assessment.
9. Provide office space with a private area for confidential
calls or talks between the parish nurse and
10. Enable parish nurses to attend continuing education
for ongoing clinical and pastoral needs.
Mary Ellen Pellegrini of Girard, Ohio, is a regular contributor
to The Catholic Exponent, the diocesan
newspaper of Youngstown. She is the author of 200
articles and two books, My Baby and Me: Growing
Together From Pregnancy Through the First Year and
Managing Money: Spending and Saving Wisely,
both published by CWLA Press. She is married with
three children and two grandchildren.