by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — Father Tom Hesse might be retired from active ministry and parish life, but that hasn’t kept him from caring for the spiritual needs of seniors like Nancy Burton at Atria Hearthstone Community here.
Raised Catholic, Burton once considered becoming a nun. After her first marriage ended in divorce, Burton met her second husband, a non-Catholic. The two got married, and Burton often attended church services with him. The services were nice, she said, but something was missing. She didn’t realize she missed her Catholic faith. That is, until about five or six months ago.
Father Hesse, also a resident, happened to be in the communivty restaurant one day just as Burton was talking with a few others about growing up Catholic. Although he wasn’t trying to, Father Hesse overheard part of the conversation. He asked Burton why she hadn’t been to any of the Masses he celebrates for residents on the weekends.
That moment, according to Burton, changed her life.
Father Tom, as he is affectionately known, moved into the community five years ago after retiring from active parish ministry. Along with Sister Ann Moylan, SCL, aging ministry coordinator at Topeka’s Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish, he regularly cares for the community’s Catholic residents. The community is located within the parish’s geographic boundaries.
Years ago, Topeka area priests divided the responsibilities of caring for the aging at the city’s different nursing and assisted living facilities by assigning the pastoral care of the facilities to the parish in which they lay geographically. Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish took responsibility for nine facilities within its parish boundaries.
But in 1995, then-pastor Father Frank Krische asked Sister Ann if she would consider heading a ministry to the aging.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” said Sister Ann, but she eagerly embraced the opportunity just the same.
“I told him I’d love to,” she said.
Now, 20 years later, she heads up 14 different teams of volunteers, comprised of nearly 40 individuals, all of whom serve the aging, whether they are homebound, in a nursing facility or in a hospital.
Volunteers take Communion to the sick and visit with them. Volunteers also help Sister Ann maintain records of the numerous Catholic residents, ensuring that all the Catholics in the nursing facilities or patients in the hospitals are known to the parish.
The goal of the system is to make sure that the sacramental needs of every Catholic — whether hospitalized, living in a nursing facility or living in an assisted living facility — are being addressed, especially in times of suffering. Indeed, making personal visits is what Sister Ann enjoys the most about her ministry.
“I love to help them see Jesus through their suffering,” said Sister Ann. As she gets older and deals with some health challenges herself, she said she finds it even easier to empathize with others in their sufferings.
Although volunteers say Sister Ann never says no to anyone in need, she is quick to credit those very volunteers. It’s because of them, she said, that the parish is able to serve so many.
Father Hesse’s residence at the assisted living facility offers one extra blessing the other facilities don’t enjoy — the physical presence of a priest. It allows the residents there to enjoy many more opportunities to express their Catholic faith and worship with other Catholics.
On a daily basis, Father Hesse might celebrate Mass, hold a Bible study, anoint someone in an emergency situation, hear someone’s confession or just visit with a resident who has been away from the Catholic faith for a while.
In short, he said, it’s very similar to parish life. The only real difference is that he hasn’t celebrated a wedding yet — although he admits you never know what the next day might bring.
Take, for example, that conversation with Burton in the restaurant.
“I didn’t know he was a priest,” said Burton. But after Father Hesse approached her, they visited for while.
“He invited me to Mass,” she continued. “I went to Mass, and I thought, ‘Now is the time to get straight with God.’”
He encouraged her to return to God’s healing grace through the sacrament of reconciliation, after an absence of nearly 40 years.
“I didn’t remember the Act of Contrition,” she said later, but Father Hesse walked her through it. “He made it so easy.”
And he made it so powerful.
“He told me that Jesus loved me,” said Burton simply.
Bringing people back to the faith is a real blessing, said Father Hesse. “We evangelize our own.”
On Saturday nights, he celebrates a 4 p.m. Mass for at least 25 people.
“I’m practicing my faith with others,” he said.
Although he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and is on oxygen, Father Hesse said the faith of others energizes him.
He makes it a point to talk to as many people as possible, sitting at different tables in the restaurant, saying hello to others in the hall and inviting them to Mass — all in an effort to let them know Jesus cares for them and they are not forgotten, an all-too-common feeling in the aging population.
Evelyn Bernica, another resident, serves as one of the sacristans for the weekly Mass. She is thankful for Father Hesse’s presence.
“Just knowing we have a priest to say Mass for us,” she said, “means the world to me.”