Parish nurses care for body, spirit

Cathy Thennes, parish nurse at Our Lady of Lourdes in Bettendorf, takes the blood pressure of fellow parishioner Ed Schloemer. Parish nurse and health ministry falls under Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Davenport.

By Anne Marie Amacher

(The Catholic Messenger is highlighting various programs and ministries offered through the Diocese of Davenport’s Catholic Charities. This is the third in a series of stories.)

Parish nurse roles vary by parish. But integrating body, mind, soul and spirit is essential, says Terry Wilkins, parish nurse at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. “We work with the whole person, (we’re) not just focusing on a body with a disease.”

But parish nurses do have limits. “We are not doctors. We do not do hands-on care. We are more educational,” Wilkins said.


Cheryl Wagner, parish nurse at Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport, entered parish nurse ministry after realizing that some elderly parishioners who didn’t look well suddenly were no longer at church. “I became very worried that something had happened and they needed help at home. Because many were very private and not wanting to ask for help from another parishioner, but would accept the help of a nurse, I began to think that parish nursing would be a way to keep tabs on people and help them when their life situations became changed or even offer help before things became too desperate for them,” Wagner said.

“I slowly found that it was not just the elderly in the parish who had needs. It has been a very enriching and rewarding experience, from the standpoint of now being able to help those who would otherwise have slipped through the cracks and been lost, or those who are so overwhelmed caring for a loved one and feel they have nowhere to turn.”

Much can be done to assist without providing direct care. Wagner visits homes, hospitals and nursing homes and brings Communion if needed. She checks on the general health of parishioners listed as ill in the parish bulletin, takes people to doctor appointments or helps them as an advocate in navigating the healthcare system. Her parish’s Wellness Committee helps with health fairs, walks, Fat Tuesday celebrations, a 5K walk/run, bulletin board information and inserts among other projects.  

Mary Fritch, parish nurse at Holy Family Parish in Davenport, said she went to nursing school at St. Anthony’s in Rock Island, Ill., where “we were taught the spiritual aspect of nursing with the physical lessons. I became a Befriender through the pastoral care department at Trinity (Medical Center). When I retired and was asked to be a parish nurse, I realized I could continue nursing in a faith-filled environment. I could use my experiences in nursing and life to support others with faith.”

She educates the parish through weekly bulletin articles, a newsletter and programs throughout the year. Blood pressure checks are offered two weekends a month after Masses. “Home, hospital and nursing home visits provide the opportunity for support, teaching and assessments of the needs of the individual and family,” she said. “The body, mind and spirit are the background for programs like the health fair and prayer shawl ministry,” Fritch added.

A summer walking competition between Holy Family and Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Bettendorf continues. Cathy Thennes, Our Lady of Lourdes’ parish nurse, hopes to get other parish nurses in the diocese to join the summer program next year. 

Thennes had been a stay-at-home mom and was “praying about what direction God wanted me to take my life. God gave me a very quick reply.” She received a letter from Father Tom Spiegel, pastor of the parish at the time. “As I was reading the letter I knew God had given me his answer very firmly! I called Fr. Spiegel and together we started the parish nurse ministry at Lourdes.”

Thennes said she has grown in more ways than she could have imagined as a parish nurse.

“I have received so much from the people I come in contact with each day. What a joy it is to be able to combine my faith and nursing and help my fellow parishioners.” She also appreciates the support of the pastor, Father Tim Sheedy.

The parish offers blood pressure screenings after Mass twice a month, flu shots in the fall, health fairs, monthly wellness letters in the bulletin, hospital, nursing home and home visits, coordination and training of Ministers of Care (home Communion and friendly visitors), health consultations and referrals.

Kent Ferris, the Davenport Diocese’s social action director, said parish nurses serve a vital role in their parishes. More are needed. He hopes to offer quarterly meetings for parish nurses because “peer support is crucial.” Presentations would supplement what parish nurses receive through ongoing professional development.

Wagner sees such quarterly meetings as an opportunity to exchange information and ideas.

Fritsch appreciates the opportunity to share programs and successes. “The parish nurse ministry would be improved through educational programs concerning the Catholic approach to health care and social action,” she said.

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