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Catholic Parishes Minister to Soul and Body
Mary Ellen Pellegrini
Source: St. Anthony Messenger magazine
Published: Sunday, May 23, 2010
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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 dimension.

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 resources. 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 hospitals.

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 health ministry.

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," she says.

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 Sister Anne.

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 Anne.

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 recharge.

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 each evening.

"'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 movement.

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 health ministries.

"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 Daniels.

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 memory issues,
• 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, Shepard notes.

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 programs.

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, notes Harning.

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 person."

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, she adds.

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."

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