ORTING – Betty Lou Prather used to take Communion to homebound parishioners. But until becoming homebound herself, Prather didn’t appreciate the scope of services offered by the health ministry at her parish, Sts. Cosmas and Damian Mission in Orting.
Volunteers have taken Prather to the grocery store and the urgent care clinic. They’ve brought home-delivered meals, prayers and Communion. The point person for all these services is Marlene Bartram, the parish’s faith community nurse.
“She’s an angel in disguise,” Prather said. “She’s given 100 percent of herself. She helps people out, and if she can’t do it herself, she assigns someone else to do it.”
Bartram leads a team of 10 volunteers that includes nurses and physician assistants. Her team is a small part of the overall health ministry at the parish, which includes extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and parishioners who deliver meals to the homebound, cook for the parish priests, make prayer shawls or gather monthly for spiritual direction.
The health ministry for the 130-household parish encompasses all these areas because “you can’t separate physical and spiritual needs,” said Bartram, who has been a faith community nurse for about six years.
Similar health ministries are now active at an estimated 80 parishes around the archdiocese, according to Erica Cohen Moore, the archdiocese’s director of discipleship.
‘Surrounding people with love’
Faith community nurses (once called parish nurses) must be registered nurses and maintain their license and insurance even after retirement, according to the archdiocese’s policy adopted in 2015, Cohen Moore said.
Helping parishioners navigate health care and promoting wellness is just part of the mission for health ministers and faith community nurses. “We’re not truly whole unless we have the spiritual component,” Cohen Moore said. So the nurses’ training includes a course focusing on mind, body and spirit.
With the support of their pastors, faith community nurses can offer services that don’t require a medical order. That can include blood pressure checks, flu shot clinics, health fairs or hosting educational speakers.
But it’s not just about free clinics, said Debbie Saint, coordinator for congregational health ministries at CHI Franciscan Health in Tacoma. She supports the health ministry programs of various churches, including 19 Catholic parishes, in the south Puget Sound region.
“We try to provide hands-on care, but in the sense of surrounding people with love,” Saint said.
Nurses at parishes can also help families deal with “spiritual wounds,” such as feelings of guilt or regret that may arise when placing a loved one in a nursing home or dealing with a death, said Lori Bulger, a nurse at Holy Rosary Parish in Edmonds. “I can take a holistic approach,” using faith as well as nursing skills, said Bulger, who has been a faith community nurse for about 20 years.
Bartram, of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, said she initially struggled with the spiritual aspect of being a parish nurse. “As a nurse, I felt very competent in medical issues but was lacking on the spiritual side of how to pray with people,” Bartram said. “I wasn’t comfortable with being a comforting soul.” So she took Cabrini ministry training, finding it “invaluable” in learning how to be present with people.
Parishioners at Sts. Cosmas and Damian Mission in Orting discuss end-of-life topics during a fall 2016 planning session organized by the parish’s health ministry team. Photo: Courtesy Debbie Saint, CHI Franciscan
Working with partners
Many faith community nurses partner with other outreach ministries and organizations to offer services.
At Sacred Heart Parish in Lacey, nurses offer foot care each month at Drexel House, a Catholic Community Services residence for the once-homeless and people who have developmental disabilities.
Bulger, who said she is known at her Edmonds parish as the “fall-prevention queen,” has joined forces with a Snohomish County program to assess older parishioners’ homes for potential fall hazards.
And Sts. Cosmas and Damian partnered with community members to offer an end-of-life planning fair in fall 2016. The event gave parishioners access to doctors, lawyers, hospital chaplains, Catholic cemetery representatives and funeral home directors as they discussed end-of-life topics.
Sacred Heart also brings in guest speakers; this fall’s topics include cardiac rehabilitation, hospice and aids for people with disabilities. The events are organized by a team of about 15 volunteers, said team leader Theresa Lirette, a nurse who has been active in the ministry since the early 1990s.
Reaping social benefits
Monthly blood pressure checks and foot care clinics can offer more than physical health benefits.
Many parishioners who attend Sacred Heart’s twice-monthly foot care clinics don’t mind the wait, Lirette said. With all the socializing and chatting, it gets very noisy — but that’s healthy, she said: “Laughter is healing.”
And faith community nurses say they enjoy the social aspect of parish team meetings or community gatherings that include nurses from other churches. They also like staying active in their field after retirement.
“This is me at the core of what I do best,” said Bulger, the Holy Rosary nurse. “I exercise my faith in helping people deal with the hardest issues they may have to face in life.”
Learn more about becoming a faith community nurse or health minister.