Through ministries, parishes seek to promote healthy minds, bodies and spirits

July 29, 2019 at 12:37 p.m.
Through ministries, parishes seek to promote healthy minds, bodies and spirits
Through ministries, parishes seek to promote healthy minds, bodies and spirits


By Rose O’Connor and David Karas | Correspondents

Maybe it was when close to 90 parishioners in a Trenton parish received free vision screenings and pairs of eyeglasses that had been donated. Or perhaps it was when a blood pressure screening and follow-up literature and educational materials helped a parishioner in Marlton to reverse her high blood pressure condition without a single prescription, or bill. It would be difficult to pinpoint the greatest impact of parish health ministries, especially because health fairs, screenings and other educational programming continue to be provided to faith communities by dedicated parish nurses and volunteers.

With the goal of promoting the healthy minds, bodies and spirits of parishioners, such health ministries across the Diocese of Trenton seek to leverage the talents of volunteer nurses and the generosity of outside organizations to unite faith communities with health tools that can identify potential problems, provide parishioners with talking points for their next visit with a primary care provider, and help encourage healthy living.

“We view each person as a temple of the Holy Spirit. As gifts from the Spirit we need to foster and maintain our bodies in the best health possible,” said Barbara Johnston and Betty Tourscher, co-coordinators of the health ministry in St. Joan of Arc Parish, Marlton. “We likewise view our profession as a gift from God enabling us not only to ‘see the face of Jesus’ but to help heal and encourage – it is a joy to serve in this capacity.”

Whether it is identifying screenings that could be of benefit to parishioners or helping those uninsured or underinsured to locate free or inexpensive community resources to maintain their health, parish nursing ministries provide a variety of services to communities of faith. Education is an integral part of the mission, while the more hands-on nursing and medical care remains the responsibility of primary care providers or home healthcare nurses.

“We decided early on that education was going to be a large part of what we offer,” said Johnston.

According to her ministry’s mission statement, the program is intended to provide health education and wellness programs, including flu and pneumonia shot clinics, and a number of screenings or fair events – as well as information on Medicare, veterans’ affairs and other advanced healthcare directives.

“We will provide emotional and spiritual support with compassionate listening, care, and service,” the mission statement declares. “We will visit in the home upon request. While parish health ministry providers do not offer hands on care, we do recognize the interconnectedness of spirituality and physical health.”

Registered nurse Donna Mieszkowski, coordinator of the nursing ministry in St. Hedwig Parish, Trenton, considers a large part of her role to be identifying health needs among parishioners and finding ways to secure services and screenings to provide them with education and support.

For example, her parish – an ethnic community of faith – tended to have high blood pressure among congregants.

“We did notice some spikes there, so we had a physician from the area who speaks Polish come out and speak to the parishioners,” she said. “They felt they could speak to someone in their own language.” Mieszkowski – who is employed by the Department of Human Services for the State of New Jersey – has seen the ministry grow as she has forged partnerships with the Lawrence Township Department of Health, the Princeton Healthcare System and NJ CEED, which provides cancer education and early detection screenings through grants and funding. Some of the screenings she has put together – including a recent mammogram program – came up with detections that led to referrals for parishioners to see their primary care providers for follow-up examinations, and if necessary, treatment.

“They did have findings, and that is important,” she said, noting that the agency that performed the screenings worked with the parishioners to ensure they received proper follow-up care. “It is not just finding something – they were able to follow them through and get them to the care they needed.”

Mieszkowski said that the presence of the services within the context of the parish community provides a sense of comfort to parishioners. “The parishioners feel so much more comfortable in the parish,” she said. “Faith draws the parishioners to the parish where they have the opportunity through community agency networking by our health ministry to receive needed preventive health screenings after Mass.” Barbara Vassallo, coordinator of the ministry in Corpus Christi Parish, Willingboro, said that such events go beyond just providing screenings – they involve asking and answering questions, and providing relevant literature to help parishioners better understand how to manage their personal health. She said that even the occasional screening can do wonders to help folks understand health issues they may otherwise be unaware of. “If someone doesn’t have their blood pressure taken on a regular basis, they don’t know they have high blood pressure,” she said.

In 1996, St. Mary of the Lakes Parish, Medford, also sought to establish a health ministry because “people have a lot of questions and they don’t always feel that they are important enough to call the doctor about,” said Dorothy Cannon, parish nurse coordinator there.

Sandy Mullarkey, parish nursing coordinator in St. Anselm Parish, Tinton Falls, sees such a ministry as more than just a physical service. “Parish nurses not only assess a person’s response to illness or loss, but they also assess the spiritual needs of that person – noting the sacramental needs… as well as the on-going Eucharist and prayer needs of that individual,” she said. “Parish Nursing is about assessing an individual’s needs and providing on-going spiritual, emotional and physical support to meet those needs. It’s about promoting helpful and healthy programs as well as referral and assistance in obtaining resources. We are like a broker of services – we provide and inform parishioners of available resources and service.”

Johnston and Tourscher said that, should their ministry help but one parishioner, that it would be worthwhile.

“One Sunday, a person came in who had coronary bypass surgery. His blood pressure, which had been under great control, was now very high. His color was dusky. We referred him to the emergency room immediately,” they told The Monitor. “He returned the following week and informed us that he had been admitted and the problem corrected. He looked so much better.”

“If you look at the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, you see this intertwining of spirituality and health care, such as – feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick, comfort the sorrowful, pray for the living and the dead,” she said. “We recognize the interconnectedness of spirituality and physical health.”

To learn more about establishing a parish health ministry, contact John Kalinowski, director of the diocesan Department of Pastoral Care, at (609) 403-7157.

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By Rose O’Connor and David Karas | Correspondents

Maybe it was when close to 90 parishioners in a Trenton parish received free vision screenings and pairs of eyeglasses that had been donated. Or perhaps it was when a blood pressure screening and follow-up literature and educational materials helped a parishioner in Marlton to reverse her high blood pressure condition without a single prescription, or bill. It would be difficult to pinpoint the greatest impact of parish health ministries, especially because health fairs, screenings and other educational programming continue to be provided to faith communities by dedicated parish nurses and volunteers.

With the goal of promoting the healthy minds, bodies and spirits of parishioners, such health ministries across the Diocese of Trenton seek to leverage the talents of volunteer nurses and the generosity of outside organizations to unite faith communities with health tools that can identify potential problems, provide parishioners with talking points for their next visit with a primary care provider, and help encourage healthy living.

“We view each person as a temple of the Holy Spirit. As gifts from the Spirit we need to foster and maintain our bodies in the best health possible,” said Barbara Johnston and Betty Tourscher, co-coordinators of the health ministry in St. Joan of Arc Parish, Marlton. “We likewise view our profession as a gift from God enabling us not only to ‘see the face of Jesus’ but to help heal and encourage – it is a joy to serve in this capacity.”

Whether it is identifying screenings that could be of benefit to parishioners or helping those uninsured or underinsured to locate free or inexpensive community resources to maintain their health, parish nursing ministries provide a variety of services to communities of faith. Education is an integral part of the mission, while the more hands-on nursing and medical care remains the responsibility of primary care providers or home healthcare nurses.

“We decided early on that education was going to be a large part of what we offer,” said Johnston.

According to her ministry’s mission statement, the program is intended to provide health education and wellness programs, including flu and pneumonia shot clinics, and a number of screenings or fair events – as well as information on Medicare, veterans’ affairs and other advanced healthcare directives.

“We will provide emotional and spiritual support with compassionate listening, care, and service,” the mission statement declares. “We will visit in the home upon request. While parish health ministry providers do not offer hands on care, we do recognize the interconnectedness of spirituality and physical health.”

Registered nurse Donna Mieszkowski, coordinator of the nursing ministry in St. Hedwig Parish, Trenton, considers a large part of her role to be identifying health needs among parishioners and finding ways to secure services and screenings to provide them with education and support.

For example, her parish – an ethnic community of faith – tended to have high blood pressure among congregants.

“We did notice some spikes there, so we had a physician from the area who speaks Polish come out and speak to the parishioners,” she said. “They felt they could speak to someone in their own language.” Mieszkowski – who is employed by the Department of Human Services for the State of New Jersey – has seen the ministry grow as she has forged partnerships with the Lawrence Township Department of Health, the Princeton Healthcare System and NJ CEED, which provides cancer education and early detection screenings through grants and funding. Some of the screenings she has put together – including a recent mammogram program – came up with detections that led to referrals for parishioners to see their primary care providers for follow-up examinations, and if necessary, treatment.

“They did have findings, and that is important,” she said, noting that the agency that performed the screenings worked with the parishioners to ensure they received proper follow-up care. “It is not just finding something – they were able to follow them through and get them to the care they needed.”

Mieszkowski said that the presence of the services within the context of the parish community provides a sense of comfort to parishioners. “The parishioners feel so much more comfortable in the parish,” she said. “Faith draws the parishioners to the parish where they have the opportunity through community agency networking by our health ministry to receive needed preventive health screenings after Mass.” Barbara Vassallo, coordinator of the ministry in Corpus Christi Parish, Willingboro, said that such events go beyond just providing screenings – they involve asking and answering questions, and providing relevant literature to help parishioners better understand how to manage their personal health. She said that even the occasional screening can do wonders to help folks understand health issues they may otherwise be unaware of. “If someone doesn’t have their blood pressure taken on a regular basis, they don’t know they have high blood pressure,” she said.

In 1996, St. Mary of the Lakes Parish, Medford, also sought to establish a health ministry because “people have a lot of questions and they don’t always feel that they are important enough to call the doctor about,” said Dorothy Cannon, parish nurse coordinator there.

Sandy Mullarkey, parish nursing coordinator in St. Anselm Parish, Tinton Falls, sees such a ministry as more than just a physical service. “Parish nurses not only assess a person’s response to illness or loss, but they also assess the spiritual needs of that person – noting the sacramental needs… as well as the on-going Eucharist and prayer needs of that individual,” she said. “Parish Nursing is about assessing an individual’s needs and providing on-going spiritual, emotional and physical support to meet those needs. It’s about promoting helpful and healthy programs as well as referral and assistance in obtaining resources. We are like a broker of services – we provide and inform parishioners of available resources and service.”

Johnston and Tourscher said that, should their ministry help but one parishioner, that it would be worthwhile.

“One Sunday, a person came in who had coronary bypass surgery. His blood pressure, which had been under great control, was now very high. His color was dusky. We referred him to the emergency room immediately,” they told The Monitor. “He returned the following week and informed us that he had been admitted and the problem corrected. He looked so much better.”

“If you look at the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, you see this intertwining of spirituality and health care, such as – feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick, comfort the sorrowful, pray for the living and the dead,” she said. “We recognize the interconnectedness of spirituality and physical health.”

To learn more about establishing a parish health ministry, contact John Kalinowski, director of the diocesan Department of Pastoral Care, at (609) 403-7157.

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