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 at St. Christine Parish in Youngstown, Ohio, health fairs and yoga
classes, plus gifts of homemade bread and soup, create a holistic atmosphere for
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
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
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
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
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 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
• providing classes and information to encourage healthy
• intervening for those with memory issues,
• training and coordinating volunteers,
• starting support
• helping individuals navigate today's complex health system,
and building bridges to manage chronic disease with support from the parish
"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 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."