Parishes minister to the homebound

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photo_for_shutins_smallBy Jennika Baines
Sun Associate Editor

Winter is a long and lonely season, partly because it’s so difficult to get outside. But for many who are homebound, getting outside is always difficult. That’s why parish ministry to the homebound fills such a need by keeping parishioners connected to their faith and to their former life.

Sister Caryn Haas, DSMP, is pastoral care administrator at Holy Family Church in Syracuse. In her ministry she brings the Eucharist to the homebound and organizes and trains a team of approximately 21 Eucharistic ministers in the parish who do the same. She said there are around 33 people in the parish who are homebound and visited by ministers in the parish.

“You never know what to expect when you walk into a house,” Sister Caryn said. “But you really have to accept people as they are.”

She said visits usually begin with a little small talk. “First when you come in you just ask them how they are and just talk about basic things like the weather or their family or what they did in life. Sometimes they have some really nice stories,” Sister Caryn said.

She said she might also say a few prayers with the person. If they feel like it, they can join her in the prayers. She then administers the Eucharist, chats a bit more and asks when they’d like her to visit again. The visits can be weekly, twice a month or monthly.

“You’ll be talking to them and they’ll say, ‘I’ve been in the parish for 40 or 50 years or more,’ and you realize they’ve given a lot to the parish and we need to serve them,” Sister Caryn said.

Kathy Staffa has been a Eucharistic minister at Holy Family for around two years. “I wanted to go out in the community and help those seniors that couldn’t go to church,” Staffa said. “It was something I decided the Lord wanted me to do.”

Staffa usually visits an apartment building where there are five homebound seniors. Visiting with the same people each week allows her to build a real relationship with them. “They really become a part of your family,” she said. “It’s something that I look forward to every week. It’s like a friendship. You speak to them and they tell you what’s happened during the week and if they need it they have someone they can unload to sometimes.”

Staffa said she would encourage others to contact their parish to learn about becoming a Eucharistic minister to the homebound. “It’s the most wonderful thing I’ve done,” Staffa said. “It’s just very fulfilling to me. There are so many people that can’t do what we do every day or every week, and I just think that it’s something that’s so needed.”

Sarah (who prefers that her real name not be used) is a former parishioner of Holy Family Church whose mother has become homebound. Sarah moved away from Syracuse, but she wanted to help her mother keep a connection to the parish.

She called Sister Caryn, who asked if Sarah’s mother would like to receive bulletins in the mail. “I knew she’d like that. She used to like to read the bulletins,” Sarah said. But when Sister Caryn offered to have a Eucharistic minister come to the house, Sarah wasn’t so sure. “At first, I wanted to wait on that because she’s not used to having people in her home,” she said. “But at the very least I’d like her to have Communion. I knew she’d like that. It gives her a connection.”

Now, Sarah said her mother looks forward to the visits from the Eucharistic minister. “She calls the people who come to visit her her friends,” Sarah said. “It also gives her some stability to her week. When one day melts into the next, it can be hard for anybody to keep track of which day it is.”

Sister Caryn also keeps a list of nurses, home health aides and people who are willing to help others get to doctors’ appointments. She helped put Sarah in touch with people who are able to help her mother. “Figuring out home-based care, it’s just a maze of trying to figure out where the services are,” Sarah said. “There’s so much out there and we’ll be dealing with this system for a while. But this is local for her, and [the Eucharistic ministers] are members of her parish. If churches and parishes can help with this, they’re filling a real need.”

St. Michael/St. Peter’s Parish in Syracuse started a ministry to the homebound in order to respond to this same need. Gerald McMahon, Sr., is the coordinator for this ministry, and he said that whether visiting people in their homes, in nursing homes or while recuperating in hospitals, the volunteers in the ministry find their work deeply rewarding.

“I think you could ask any one of the members of the ministry and they would say that the people that we visit are very happy to see you and they’re very grateful,” McMahon said. “And you feel good about yourself. It’s a nice opportunity to bring Christ into their lives.”

Sister Maureen Murphy, CSJ, is the coordinator of the ministry to the sick and elderly at Blessed Sacrament Church in Syracuse. She said there are around 25 parishioners who volunteer their time to minister to the homebound and help families who have recently lost a loved one.

Sister Maureen said she started the ministry around 10 years ago. The parish also offers a program entitled “Seasons of Hope” which speaks to families who are mourning a loss. The six-week series presents speakers as well as an opportunity for prayer and reflection.

Sister Maureen said visits to the homebound are most successful when they’re in tune with what the homebound person needs. “We’d usually have a prayer which includes that Sunday’s Gospel readings, then Communion and prayer. It really depends on what their needs are or what they want to share. Listening, I’d say, is a big part of it,” she said.

Sister Carolyn Chmielewski, CSJ, is the pastoral associate at St. James Church in Syracuse.

She said the parish serves about 24 people, though that number has been as high as 40 in the past. While the parish priest and seminarian as well as some volunteers in the parish help Sister Carolyn with the home visits, she handles most of this ministry. She said visits usually take place once a week, but if someone is terminally ill, someone from the parish will come to see them more often.

“It’s really about keeping them a part of their church, showing them that their church cares about them and wants to be present for them,” Sister Carolyn said.

She said she will also come to visit recently widowed spouses. “At first, when a loved one dies, everybody’s there. But then a month later when everyone’s gone, that’s really when people are hurting the most and have a real need,” Sister Carolyn said.

Ultimately, Sister Carolyn said, visiting the homebound is about making faith-filled connections, not just for the homebound person, but also for the Eucharistic minister.

“Sometimes you might not be in the best frame of mind and you go and meet with them and they can really cheer you up,” Sister Carolyn said. “It’s not just you bringing Christ to them, it’s them bringing Christ to you.”

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