By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
MARYVILLE — There’s a quote about the elderly that Francesca Brownsberger will never forget:
“Our bodies and minds are going weak, but our spirits are getting stronger.”
“I wish I knew what saint said that,” said Brownsberger, who ministers to the elderly at five Maryville nursing homes and assisted living facilities, though she will wonder exactly who is ministering to whom.
“I am getting all the benefit of that,” she said. “I am learning from the masters about God.”
Several times a month, funded by a $2,000 diocesan parish ministry grant that covers books and gasoline, Brownsberger sets out from St. Gregory Barbarigo Parish to soak up that spirituality as she conducts Bible study and prayer groups for Catholic and non-Catholic residents alike.
Friday, March 20 — the first day of spring — was her morning for Scripture study and reflection with five women who were waiting for her when she arrived, promptly at 10 a.m.
“I want to know if anyone saw the sun come up this morning?” said Beverly Warner, 87. “There was the fog, and coming through that, it looked like a big moon.”
Another day to celebrate God.
“Where would the sunshine come from? Where would anything come from if not from God?” said Marjorie Rasco, 93.
Benedictine Father Martin DeMeulenaere said that he offers Mass once a month at every nursing home and assisted living center, and an army of parish extraordinary Communion ministers organized by Ada Mae Wilmes makes certain every Catholic resident receives the Eucharist once a week.
And even that is a labor of love.
“I’ve been very blessed,” Wilmes said. “God has blessed me with family, friends and health. Then I get another blessing from them (the elderly) and their friendship as well. You get a lot more from them than you give.”
But it wasn’t enough, Father DeMeulenaere said, and with a little help from the Parish Ministry Grant and the diocese, a lively parish with a lively school and a full range of ministries and outreach to the community is doing even more.
“It is a special love of mine, the elderly,” Father DeMeulenaere said. “They sometimes consider themselves finished, that no more growth is possible. Well, there’s always growth. Even if they can’t get out and do things, they can still become powerful ministers of prayer.”
Brownsberger led the Bristol Manor group through the Catholic Mass readings for March 20 out of the “Give Us This Day” missalette.
The discussion about the Gospel from John, Chapter 7, was animated.
Brownsberger pointed out that many in the crowd doubted that Jesus was the Messiah, and were angered when he spoke of his Father, and that he came from heaven. They knew he came from Galilee.
“Why do you think that was a big issue for the Jews then?” Brownberger asked.
“If he was from Galilee, they knew he was poor and didn’t have an education,” said Dona Kaminski, 83, the study group’s only Catholic.
“They thought he was going to be a king,” added Warner, a Disciple of Christ. “But God sent him. He’s God’s son. God had Mary bring him into this world as a human.”
But the message Jesus preached must have been powerful because so many believed it immediately, especially the Apostles, the women agreed.
“He said, ‘Drop your fish nets and come with me.’ And they did,” Warner said.
“That was a daring decision on the spur of the moment,” said Rose Robbins, 96.
“He either had a wild imagination, or he was a very smart man,” said Rasco.
The women also shared their life experiences as members of a generation now called “The Greatest.”
“I’m a farmer’s daughter,” Kaminski said. “Do you remember when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor? Five days after that, I turned 10. The next year, when it came time to harvest, my father couldn’t find anyone to drive the tractor. I said, ‘I can drive it,’ so I drove the tractor while he shucked. I drove that tractor for six years.”
“These kids today don’t even realize what people our age went through,” Rasco added.
“My father always took me to Sunday School and after that, we did chores,” said Helen Muldrew, 87, who raised three children alone on a school superintendent’s secretary salary. “When it was real cold, we used to heat irons in the stove and wrap them in newspapers to use on our feet.”
Kaminski told how her grandfather donated the land to build a Catholic church in Butler Co., Neb.
“That church is still going today,” she said.
“My father had a deep faith, but I regret the fact that I didn’t learn too much about my religion,” Kaminski said.
“Now that I am retired, I have time to read. Some Lents ago, I didn’t give up candy or anything else, but I promised God that I would do an hour of spiritual reading every day,” she said. “Well, once you start that, it’s hard to stop.”
They reached to the intercessions, the opportunity for special, individual prayers.
“I’m praying I can leave here in April,” said Warner. “I will be well enough then. I will miss all of you and this group, but I am going home.”