Indiana volunteers offer compassionate ministry to the elderly and dying

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Mike Fronckowiak, a member of St. Gabriel Parish in Connersville, Ind., walks with Earl Schneider at a nursing home Aug. 3. (CNS photo/courtesy The Criterion)

CONNERSVILLE, Ind. (CNS) — Sometimes involvement in a ministry reveals an even deeper need beyond the one being met.

So it was for Barbara Davis-Hinkle of St. Gabriel Parish in Connersville, who started a nursing home ministry several years ago at the parish.

“We bring the Eucharist to the homebound and those in nursing homes every week, and we give Christmas and Easter gifts to the Catholic residents,” she told The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The ministry also arranges for the parish’s pastor, Father Dustin Boehm, to offer the sacraments at two local nursing homes.

But as Davis-Hinkle walked the halls of the nursing homes as a volunteer for her own ministry, “It became obvious that some residents were sitting alone with no one to visit them,” she said. “And then I noticed that a few were dying with no one to sit with them.”

Davis-Hinkle “put the two scenarios together.” In May 2017, she began developing a plan and last March the plan came to fruition: a ministry called Compassionate Visitors.

On the visiting side of the ministry, nurses at local senior homes keep Davis-Hinkle informed of residents with few or no visitors. She then assigns one or two residents for each volunteer to visit weekly.

The team consists of 20 weekly visitors and 12 vigil-keepers — including volunteers who serve in both capacities — from both St. Gabriel and St. Bridget of Ireland Parish in Liberty, Indiana.

Team members range in age from their 20s to their 80s. Four married couples volunteer as husband-and-wife teams.

While grateful for the volunteers, Davis-Hinkle said there is plenty of room for more.

“We visit Catholics and non-Catholics alike,” she said. “It doesn’t seem to matter what religion they are, if you pray the Lord’s Prayer, they start to follow along. Even patients with dementia can follow along with some prayers.”

Abigail McFeely, a St. Gabriel member of Compassionate Visitors, noted that “people light up when you walk into their room. Sometimes just a pat on the shoulder can mean the world to them.

“For me, going to the nursing home, I’ve become a better person,” she admitted. “It makes me humble. I’m no different than them.”

The ministry also has provided opportunities to evangelize.

“I’ve seen instances of people who’ve been away from the church 30, 40, 50 years,” Davis-Hinkle said. “We have the opportunity to ask them if they want a priest to visit. They have a chance to reconnect with their faith, and we have a chance to serve as a bridge to help them do that.

“We get to give people the love God wants them to receive. We may be the only form of God’s love they ever know. They might know Jesus through us.”

Some of the volunteers serve as visitors and also as vigil-keepers when a resident is dying; others volunteer only as vigil-keepers. Such ministry is not one to which all are called, said volunteer Georgia Lucas, also a member of St. Gabriel.

But for those drawn to “walk people home, it is not upsetting,” she said. “It’s a beautiful act of mercy.”

For residents whose families are comfortable with the service, nursing home staff contact the ministry when they sense a patient is in their last days or hours of life. Volunteers join the vigil, taking two-hour shifts.

“It’s an honor to sit with them,” said Judy Sweney, who assists Davis-Hinkle in operating the ministry. “It’s inspiring. It’s a good feeling to know that you’re so close to something so beautiful.”

McFeely described keeping vigil as the hymn, “‘May the Holy Angels Lead You Into Paradise,’ except we’re like earthly angels leading them to the holy angels.”

All Compassionate Visitors undergo one day of training and meet every other month for educational opportunities and to share stories.

Additionally, vigil-keepers receive a package of items to help them accompany the dying. The kit includes a St. Benedict cross, scapular, votive candle holder, holy water, rosary, Divine Mercy chaplet card and a handbook of prayers.

“When you do service for others, you forget yourself,” Davis-Hinkle said. “There’s something so uplifting about that. You gain a reward from the experience, maybe even more than the person you’re helping.”

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