by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — Mary Strecker might not be able to get to Mass, but every week volunteers make sure she regularly receives the Eucharist.
Strecker is a resident at Topeka’s Lexington Park, a senior living community with varying levels of care ranging from independent living to 24-hour skilled nursing care supervised by a doctor. For the past three years, she has pretty much stayed in her apartment. Recently, due to changes in her health, she has been receiving hospice care.
It’s her wish to receive what’s known as viaticum (holy Communion received by someone approaching death). It’s a wish that Sister Ann Moylan, SCL, coordinator of Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish’s ministry to the aging, is determined to do her best to fulfill.
The Topeka parish’s ministry to the aging involves volunteers regularly visiting the homebound and those in nursing homes. Additionally, every week on the parish’s assigned day (each parish in the city takes a turn) parishioners visit Catholics in the hospital, bringing the Eucharist to them. It’s a ministry that volunteers, including Debbie Henning, said they find rewarding.
Nearly 20 years ago, Henning was new to Topeka. She became a eucharistic minister at her parish. A few years later, Sister Ann mentioned she had an urgent need for volunteers to visit the homebound and those in the hospital. That’s when Henning said her life took on a greater meaning.
“It’s so humbling,” Henning said.
Visiting the sick and elderly is not always easy, she said. People can be frustrated with their health condition.
Additionally, if they are in the hospital, they might have listed Catholicism as their religious preference, but may have not been to Mass in years and might be angry at God. Nonetheless, she said it’s important to reach them.
“ [The visit and/or the Eucharist] draws them out of themselves,” she said.
Like Henning, Sonja Feist said visiting nursing homes and hospitals can be challenging, but also extremely rewarding. For 15 years, she has been bringing the Eucharist, along with prayer blankets, to Catholics in the hospital.
The parish’s sewing group makes small blankets, roughly a square yard in size, has them blessed by the parish priest and gives them to those in need, along with a prayer card from the parish. What Feist finds most amazing is how the Holy Spirit always leads volunteers to provide the right blanket made of “the right color, the right pattern for the right person.”
Recently, Feist visited a man and only had one blanket to offer him. It had the U.S. flag on it.
“He started crying. He was a veteran, and he felt like God had picked the blanket just for him. It was so touching,” she said.
Being with those in nursing homes and hospitals sometimes also means facing death, a reality with which some people might be uncomfortable.
“Suddenly, they know [they] could die,” she said. “We’re reaching them at a very vulnerable time, and some of them may have been away from church for a very long time.
“We’re there to say, ‘You’re one of ours.’”
Feist said her favorite moments are when people are given an opportunity “to make things right with God” and are receptive to having a priest come to hear their confession and receive the anointing of the sick.
“That’s the moment I love,” she said.
Volunteers sometimes become eyes and ears for the family. For example, a man might live in a nursing home in Kansas, but his children live in California. Time and circumstance prevent the children from visiting as often as they’d like but, because the volunteers visit regularly, they are able to notice changes and let Sister Ann know, who then informs both the family and the parish priest.
Such is the case with Strecker, whom Sister Ann and several volunteers have been regularly visiting. Sister Ann has already informed the parish pastor, Father Greg Hammes, of Strecker’s wish to receive viaticum if possible.
No doubt given the respect Father Hammes has for the ministry to the aging, he’ll make every effort to honor Strecker’s wish.
“[This ministry] is so important because our church is about community, and it’s so hard when many of our aging are unable to make it to church. . . . It’s important to bring church to them and take Communion to them,” he said.