Success Stories Parishes Can Benefit FromTaken from the Catholic News Service
The concept seems simple enough: parish priests to heal the soul, parish nurses to heal the body.
Parish nurses have been slowly becoming an integral part of parish teams since the 1980s.
According to JoAnn Gruca, of St. Daniel the Prophet Parish in the Chicago area, parish nursing was the idea of a Lutheran chaplain who saw "the church as a healing place" for body, mind and spirit.
At her parish Gruca, assisted by volunteers, concentrates on preventing health problems. She checks blood pressure, sets up screenings for blood sugar and cholesterol levels, writes health articles for the parish bulletin and schedules seminars.
Gruca's team also takes its seminars to the public library so that more people in the neighborhood will benefit from their efforts.
Catherine Strong-Harper, an oncology nurse, focuses on breast cancer awareness, but her team at St. Sabina Parish intends to add support groups for "other targeted areas."
Joan Klein changed from a 13-year volunteer to a paid worker two years ago. Besides the screenings and blood pressure checks she provides at St. Christina Parish, her volunteer team provides exercise classes for the elderly and support groups for care givers and also sponsors healing Masses for those who are grieving.
Edna Arroyo, of St. Sylvester's Parish, has no team, so she spends most of her time addressing issues brought to her attention. Some requests deal more with social service issues, such as immigration and school placement.
Although she cannot regularly schedule prevention activities, she has been able increasingly to obtain free services for people. One medical company that deals with diabetics gave a woman whose blood sugar was high a free blood-sugar monitor because she could not afford it.
"My most important job is just to be present and listen," she told the Catholic New World, newspaper of the Chicago Archdiocese. "When the people don't want to talk, I check their body language and anxiety level."
Sister Jane Marsden, a member of the Little Company of Mary, is an obstetric nurse who focuses on female health and family issues and provides an annual retreat. Because she has a large team -- 50 volunteers -- she also can provide more services during home visits. She noted that her "ministry of care," such as taking Communion to shut-ins, alerts her to budding health problems.
The common thread among these registered nurses is a shared appreciation that their duties involve less paperwork than other types of nursing. They believe that the church setting makes it easier for people to trust them, and that they may be making a difference spiritually.
Knowing that their presence frees up the pastor for other important activities comforts many of the coordinators, but knowing where to refer their clients makes them more effective.
But a lot remains to be done. And the field of "health ministry" still faces many problems. Local training in parish nursing is no longer available, though the organizations that once provided it still keep monthly support meetings going for those who completed the training.
Gruca and Klein are concerned about the current lack of local training, and Gruca would like to see some kind of archdiocesan support so that parish nurses would be encouraged to meet.
Money would help, too. Gruca said that, currently, parish nurses cannot function "without bake sales."
Strong-Harper would appreciate more volunteers, who she said do not have to be in a health care profession.
"If (parish nursing) were understood and appreciated by the clergy, every parish in the archdiocese would have it," Sister Marsden said.