BRIDGEPORT—Nine years ago, Marilyn Faber joined her husband William on a trip to Swaziland and discovered a different perspective on healthcare. While she was there, she volunteered at the parish nurse program that had 50 retired nurses running clinics throughout the country.
She saw firsthand what can be done in communities that lack resources. The nurses would bring in doctors to do exams and equally important, they helped in the healing process by their simple presence, she said.
The experience proved inspirational for Faber, who is the Parish Nurse Coordinator at Hartford Healthcare, St. Vincent’s Medical Center, which provides resources and assistance to 79 parishes and congregations throughout Fairfield County. The program has 225 participating nurses who are unpaid professionals, focused on what Faber calls, “the intentional care of the spirit.”
“I learned at lot in Swaziland,” she says. “I’m a holistic nurse and I learned what it means just to be you. As a nurse, you’re bringing yourself to the situation and a person who is ill. Making that connection, listening to their story and maybe using healing touch can be helpful to their healing process. And that is what the nurses did there. It taught me a lesson about the things they could do without money.”
Faith community nursing is a specialty within the American Nurses Association. There is a standard scope of practice that is followed by the unpaid professionals in the program, which exists at 42 parishes, including several in Stamford, St. Mark in Stratford, St. Aloysius in New Canaan, St. Catherine of Siena in Trumbull and Holy Name of Jesus in Stratford, along with 37 Protestant churches. The program is ecumenical and available to all churches, congregations, mosques and synagogues in Fairfield County.
Bill Hoey, Vice President of Mission Integration at Hartford Healthcare, St. Vincent’s Medical Center, said, “The Parish Nurse program is a crown jewel in our vast array of programs at St. Vincent’s. The program brings our faith-based services to the people most in need, it captures our mission, vision and values beautifully. For over 25 years, this program has educated, informed and encouraged people to be as healthy as possible. We are very proud of the fact that our programs are in congregations of many faith traditions and are provided at no cost to the church, synagogue, mosque or parish that hosts the program. I am blessed to work with colleagues like Marilyn who see their work as a vocation and strive on a daily basis to put faith into action.”
The role of the parish nurse is to offer guidance so people can navigate the healthcare process. They do educational programs, health screenings and referrals. St. Vincent’s helps the parishes start and maintain the program in their churches.
“When you are in your church and people know you are a nurse, they are often asking you questions,” Faber says. “People know the relationship the nurse may have with the pastor and you get to know them as a church person and then as a nurse, who can help you navigate a health situation. There is an intentional presence so that the nurse can attend to the whole person — body, mind and spirit — and have the opportunity to do that without time constraints of a hospital or clinical setting.”
The focus of the program is to maintain a healthy balance of mind, body and spirit, Faber says.
“The parish nurse serves as health educator, counselor, referral source and health promoter for her congregation,” Faber says. “Through basic services such as monthly blood pressure screenings, the nurse can provide valuable instruction and assistance to the congregation.”
As a result of these screenings, for example, many parishioners who might not be aware of existing problems can be referred to their personal physicians before a serious problem develops. The nurses also sponsor health fairs in their churches with information and activities for different age groups.
They take what she called a “wholistic” approach, which means caring for the whole person, including the spirit. What does that mean?
“Much of the interviewing we do is finding out how someone’s prayer life is,” Faber says. “How do you feel in your spirit? If you feel that God has left you, that could be a big piece of what is happening in your life.”
For example, when a person is ill, he or she can succumb to the belief that God has abandoned them. They may be praying to be healed and nothing is happening. As a result, they become despondent because they assume God is not listening.
Faber said, “St. Vincent’s offers each parish or congregation enrolled in the program a start-up stipend for materials and supplies, and provides orientation and continuing education programs for the parish nurses. It also facilitates professional collaboration between the parishes and services offered at the Medical Center and in the greater Bridgeport community.”
In her role as Parish Nurse Coordinator, Faber supports the parish nurses by providing them with health tips for their bulletins, updated health information and education, and guidelines on important issues, such as the safest practices for reopening churches during COVID pandemic.
An important part of her job at St. Vincent’s is her involvement in the Community Health Improvement initiative in which she works with colleagues from Bridgeport Hospital along with the greater Bridgeport area health departments and and other organizations to determine how to improve the health outcomes of the community.
“I work on the ‘Know Your Numbers’ campaign, which utilizes Fairfield University and Sacred Heart University nursing students to offer health screenings in local food pantries,” she said. This team effort helps the people of Bridgeport work together to improve community health.
As one of three parish nurse coordinators in the state, Faber collaborates with the Connecticut Nurses’ Association to offer guidance for the more than 500 parish nurses in some 200 parishes and congregations.
Her role at St. Vincent’s is oriented to community health with special attention to the underserved in the area. Among her responsibilities is overseeing the monthly food distribution done on site at St. Vincent’s.
Faber is also the parish nurse contact at her own church, Nichols United Methodist in Trumbull. Over the past 20 years she has taught CPR classes and weight-management programs, provided flu shot clinics, health fairs and Red Cross blood drives along with facilitating support groups for those who are grieving or suffering from chronic illness. She been part of the parish nursing program since its inception in 1989, when she was parish nurse at Huntington Congregational Church.
For more information about becoming a parish nurse or how St. Vincent’s can help your parish develop a program, contact the Parish Nurse Office at 203.576.5558 or email the office coordinator at Lauren.firstname.lastname@example.org.
For nurses, a tradition of service in parishes
The parish nurse program at St. Mark Church in Stratford is one of the oldest in the diocese, and in the vestibule of the church, there is a plaque honoring the nurses for their years of service. Led by Christine Pfeiffer, RNBS, the program has some 20 nurses and five volunteer recorders.
Explaining the different services the nurses offer, Pfeiffer said, “I have worked with our pastor, Father Birendra Soreng, during the return-to-church phase to explain the public health code and the Bishop’s directions. Our group also does blood pressures once a month in the church entrance. We staff all five Masses before and after services.”
On average, 60 parishioners have their blood pressure checked. Two nurses take the blood pressure and one volunteer, from the Ladies Guild or a student parishioner, records the medical information for the client.
“We also collect used medication every month and removed the labels and drop off the meds at the Stratford Police Station’s collection container,” she said. “We usually collect a good amount of used meds, which we feel is a contribution to the environment.”
In addition, the group has made presentations on nutrition and medications to the Ladies Guild and on use of wheelchairs and defibrillators to the Ushers Guild so they are prepared when EMTs arrive in an emergency situation.
Cheryl Basztura, RN has been a parish nurse at St. Catherine of Siena in Trumbull for 28 years. She and Judy Pyrch are co-coordinators of the program.
The first parish nurse, Mary Ellen Kovacs, is now director of pastor care and regularly visits hospitalized and home-bound parishioners.
“Over the years, we have held health fairs, flu shot clinics and information sessions for seniors, sometimes in conjunction with Nichols United Methodist Church,” Basztura said.
Blood pressure screenings were held every month before the COVID-19 restrictions were enacted. In addition, they make materials on wellness and disease prevention available to parishioners.
“I attend monthly parish nurse meetings at St. Vincent’s to keep abreast of current information on community agencies and other resources that parishioners can access,” she said. “And I enjoy spending one-on-one time with our clients.”
The regularly put notices in the church bulletin, and maintain a health-related bulletin board in the church hall, she said.
There are automated external defibrillators in the church and McClinch Center, and Basztura still recalls the Saturday afternoon when a parish nurse used one of them to save the life of a visitor.
Fifteen years ago Father Andrew Marcus of Holy Name of Jesus Church in Stratford asked Caren Silhavey, RN, BSN, MSN, CURNr, CNEr, to start a parish nurse program so she contacted Sister Mary Jean Tague, the first coodinator of the program at St. Vincent’s Hospital.
Silhavey, who was co-coordinator with her cousin Marion Rader, RN, said, “We were fortunate that we started our program with six RNs, 2 LPNs and one EMT.”
They began having monthly blood pressure screenings before and after Mass. That practice continued until COVID-19 restrictions were begun earlier this year. However, during the pandemic, the nurses called parishioners with health issues to see how they were doing.
“Besides blood pressures, we often provided counseling on various health and family/social issues,” she said. “We participate in health fairs both at our church as well as other parishes. At special services, such as a healing Mass, the parish staff has asked us to be present. We participated in a blood pressure screening with student nurses at a food bank that was held at our church.”
Silhavey received a grant from the Michael Vincent Sage Dragonheart Foundation for an automated external defibrillator that is mounted in the church. Since training was cancelled because of the pandemic, she sent videos and instructions to the parish staff.
With the resumption of Mass at the church, Silhavey said, “I have attended Masses and monitored the correct technique for taking temperatures.”
Kimberly McNamara, RN began volunteering at the Parish Nurse Program at St. Aloysius Parish in New Canaan in 2007, assisting with the monthly blood pressure checks after Mass. She later took the training course with the encouragement of then pastor, Monsignor William Scheyd and Sr. Mary Jean Tague, St. Vincent’s first parish nurse coordinator.
Since that time, she has been involved with the St. Aloysius Parish Nurse Program, checking blood pressure and coordinating other parishioner/nurses who help with the ministry.
“The primary service this ministry offers at St. Aloysius is blood pressure checks and associated health counseling,” McNamara said. “Many people in the parish know their numbers and appreciate being able to have a nurse check their blood pressure on a regular basis. Hypertension is a risk factor that can be managed with proper medical care, medication compliance and lifestyle accommodations.”
What McNamara has enjoyed the most about her participation has been “the one-to-one interaction with fellow parishioners.”
“During these brief meetings, we have gotten to know one another and to share elements of our common faith,” she says. “I am honored to be a part of the Parish Nurse Ministry at St. A’s, and I am continually humbled by the faith, courage and wisdom I encounter in my fellow parishioners. The act of sitting down, and taking the time to have someone read you information about your own body is one that should not be minimized. It is a challenge for some people to stop their busy schedules to address blood pressure and other health indicators.”
She says that one of the most rewarding aspects of the Parish Nurse experience has been the rich faith in the community of nurses.
“Our monthly meetings are educational and social, thanks to Marilyn Faber’s dedication and leadership,” she said. “And I leave each meeting having heard a nugget of wisdom shared by a parish nurse colleague.”