Bringing Christ into the nursing home

AIKEN—Kathryn Thomas likes to tell stories about how she once had to ride a horse seven miles each way to attend high school in rural South Dakota.

The 92-year-old resident of Trinity on Laurens, a nursing home in downtown Aiken, doesn’t have to go that far to attend Mass or receive the Eucharist. Thanks to volunteers from St. Mary Help of Christians Church, the sacraments come to her right where she lives.

Each Tuesday and Thursday, volunteers help senior citizens like Thomas attend Mass at 11 Aiken-area nursing homes and assisted living centers. They bring supplies, help set up rooms for the liturgy, assist residents in and out of seats, serve as lectors and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, and visit those who are ill or confined to bed.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Father Maximino E. Tria Jr., a visiting priest from the Philippines, celebrated a Mass for about 12 people at Trinity, including residents and visitors. The numbers vary each week. The priest then visited with Thomas in her apartment, prayed with her and gave her Communion.

“I enjoy getting Communion because I’m proud to be a Catholic,” said Thomas, a mother of four with 11 grandchildren. “I attended a Catholic high school as a child and became a Catholic when I got married, and it’s very important to me to have the Mass and the sacraments.”

Volunteers are assigned to help coordinate one Mass each month. Claire Carroll and Nick Kuehn, both of Aiken, help out at Trinity on the second Tuesday.

Kuehn became involved with the program because his late father and aunt lived at Trinity, and he saw how much it meant to them and other residents to attend Mass.

Nursing home ministry is a family affair for Carroll, whose son, Jerry Carroll, handles all the scheduling for the volunteers.

He started working with the program as a spiritual outlet to help him through bereavement after his wife died a few years ago.

“It’s a humbling experience for me as a layperson to do this,” he said. “I’m representing the church for these people, and I’ve gotten more out of it than I’ve ever been able to give.”

Ann Wittkamp, who moved to Aiken from Richmond, Va., three years ago, said the monthly Masses at Trinity mean everything to her because she no longer has a car and must rely on her children and others if she wants to attend church.

Residents said the regular liturgy helps them maintain a connection to their faith and deal with the spiritual and emotional challenges of being a senior citizen. One woman asked the group to pray for a neighbor of hers down the hall who was close to death.

“The Mass means a great deal to me,” said Gladys May, 91, a resident of Trinity for about 14 months. “It especially brings me peace of mind because I lost my daughter about a year ago, and attending this each month helps me find peace.”

Helen Stabrylla, 94, who moved to Aiken eight years ago from Michigan, said a relationship with God keeps her motivated to try new things and stay active.

“This Mass and prayer make me feel that I’m alive each day,” she said.