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Parish Nurses Ministering Wellness

Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee is a member of Ascension Health, the nation’s largest nonprofit health system and its largest Catholic health system. Ascension’s call to action is “to provide health care that leaves no one behind.” Milwaukee is one of the poorest cities in the nation. With poverty rates higher than 40 percent in parts of the city, many of Milwaukee’s neighborhoods have been left behind.

Columbia St. Mary’s sponsors a community-based, chronic disease management program (CCDM) located at food pantries operated by churches around the city. Because disease management is so heavily influenced by dietary choices, it made sense to locate the program in food pantries so that it is easy to incorporate nutrition counseling into the health screenings. “The cyclical in control/out of control management of chronic diseases cried out for a model of care different from the office-based, doctor-centric approach,” says Bill Solberg, Director of Community Services at Columbia St Mary’s.

The program employs two parish nurses who work with churches in some of the city’s most disadvantaged African American and Hispanic communities. A parish nurse is a registered nurse who works within a faith community to respond to the health issues of the members and the broader community or neighborhood. What distinguishes a parish nurse is the spiritual side of her work. “We’re not just our heart or our liver or our kidneys,” says Maureen Daniels of the International Parish Nurse Resource Center. “Part of being a person is that whole dimension of spirit that makes us who we are.”

Columbia St. Mary’s is a Catholic institution, but parish nursing is not a distinctly Catholic vocation — many prefer the term faith-community nurse. There are approximately 15,000 parish/faith-community nurses in the United States, and it is one of the fastest growing specialty practices recognized by the American Nurses Association.

Julia Means, one of the nurses employed by the hospital, is a member of Ebenezer Church of God in Christ, the site of one of the pantries. Solid partnerships with the churches have been the key to ensuring that the program is sustainable. Charles McClelland, Bishop of the Northwest Wisconsin Jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), was so impressed with the CCDM program that he invited Means to coordinate the health ministries of all 42 churches that report to him.

The pantries stock the healthiest foods they can get. Healthy items such as chicken breasts, fresh fruit, and vegetables can be purchased from the Feeding America network food bank for a modest fee per pound, which allows the food bank to cover its maintenance costs for transportation and storage. Solberg estimates it costs Columbia St. Mary’s about $1,500 per year to support one pantry. That is less than the cost of one overnight hospital stay.