Parish volunteers bring spiritual comfort, friendship to veterans’ home residents

  • Written by Morningstar Stevenson
  • Published in Local
Father Phuong Hoang celebrates Mass at the Washington Veterans Home in Port Orchard. Volunteers from St. Gabriel Parish in Port Orchard and Prince of Peace Mission in Belfair, where Father Hoang is pastor, coordinate the weekly Catholic services for the home’s residents. Photo: Maria Murphree Father Phuong Hoang celebrates Mass at the Washington Veterans Home in Port Orchard. Volunteers from St. Gabriel Parish in Port Orchard and Prince of Peace Mission in Belfair, where Father Hoang is pastor, coordinate the weekly Catholic services for the home’s residents. Photo: Maria Murphree

PORT ORCHARD – Each week since retiring in 1999, Doyle Forrester has helped bring the faith to men and women living at the nearby Washington Veterans Home.

“I serve as sacristan, lector, eucharistic minister, or [wheelchair] pusher,” Forrester said. “Anything I can do to help these guys and show appreciation for what they did.”

Forrester is among some 20 volunteers from two Catholic communities — St. Gabriel Parish in Port Orchard and Prince of Peace Mission in Belfair — who take turns making weekly visits to the nursing home.

Each Wednesday afternoon the rosary is recited, followed by Mass or a Communion service (anointing of the sick is offered once a month). Afterward, the volunteers serve light refreshments for residents to enjoy.

“People’s spiritual needs don’t stop because they can’t make it to Mass,” said Maria Murphree, St. Gabriel’s director of religious education. “They’re still part of the body of Christ. We want to make sure that none of them are forgotten.”

Typically, up to 20 residents attend the weekly service, including a handful of non-Catholics who come “to hear the word,” said St. Gabriel parishioner Sandy Maes, who coordinates the volunteers.

The parishioners contribute to the residents’ spiritual healing, according to Tami Reuter, the home’s recreational therapy manager and volunteer coordinator.

“Faith is such a critical element of total care for residents in any home,” Reuter said.

Ministry of presence

The parish volunteers don’t just facilitate faith experiences for the residents. “It’s a ministry of presence,” Murphree said. “Some [residents] don’t have family nearby, so our parishioners take the time to get to know them.”

Veterans Home
Father Phuong Hoang blesses a couple in honor of their 50th wedding anniversary during the regular Wednesday afternoon Mass at the Washington Veterans Home in Port Orchard. Volunteers from St. Gabriel Parish in Port Orchard and Prince of Peace Mission in Belfair help out at the Masses and bring a ministry of presence to the residents. Photo: Maria Murphree

Reuter said veterans tend to “self-isolate,” but knowing that the parish volunteers will be there every Wednesday helps build trust. “The reliability of this ministry draws out those who might not otherwise be there,” she said.

Friendships develop as a result. Many of the volunteers describe their relationship with the residents as “family.”

“I love every one of them,” Forrester said. “There’s equal giving and taking.”

Those connections make it more difficult when a resident dies.

“It gets emotional,” Maes said. “You know that’s coming, but it’s still hard.” To honor residents who have died, the ministry has also helped organize Masses of remembrance, she said.

‘Still enriching our lives’

Bringing services to people whose frailties prevent them from going to church is rewarding for the volunteers.

“It’s beautiful to see those with memory problems still mouth the words to the old songs like ‘Faith of Our Fathers,’” Maes said.

St. Gabriel parishioner Dick Coolen, who plays the piano during the services, said he sometimes includes secular music that the residents will recognize, such as the national anthem or songs from the armed services.

“I try to make [the songs] brighter and more enjoyable in the way I play,” he added.

Coolen also tells the story of a resident he visited for years. “All he wanted to talk about was the [University of Washington] Huskies,” Coolen said. “After 17 years of talking, one day he said to me, ‘I’d like to become Catholic.’”

So Coolen introduced the resident to St. Gabriel’s pastor, and the man was baptized and confirmed six months before his death.

Volunteer Kathy Forrester, a St. Gabriel parishioner, describes a resident she became close with even though the woman could only communicate by smiling.

“She was the best part of my week,” Forrester said. “Everyone should have that experience.”

Even though she has had to step back from some of her other volunteer responsibilities at the parish, Maes said, she will visit the veterans home as long as she’s able.

“I feel sorry that more people don’t see what we see and feel what we feel,” Maes said. “These people are still enriching our lives.”