The first graduation class of Foundations in Parish Nursing, September 2011. Photo courtesy of Michelle O’Rourke

Parish nurses bring spiritual care to healing

By  Erin Morawetz, The Catholic Register
  • April 22, 2012

TORONTO - When Shirley Christo, a parish nurse at St. John Fisher parish in Brampton, Ont., returned home from the International Parish Nursing Assembly conference a few years ago, she was greeted by some shocking news: a woman in her parish, who had been diagnosed with cancer and whose husband potentially had a brain tumour, had also just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Christo had been to this woman’s home several times; she knew her well. But this time was different. She took with her a prayer blanket she’d received at the conference and knocked on the woman’s door. When the woman answered, Christo asked, “May I go on this journey with you?”

The woman said yes. Christo wrapped her prayer blanket around her, and has been by her side ever since.

For more than three decades, Christo has acted as a parish nurse, first informally, and then officially upon taking a parish nursing course at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

“When I took the course I thought, wow, this is what I’ve been doing,” said Christo, who was inspired to become a parish nurse after doing research for her PhD on elder care.

Christo, already a registered nurse, said the course allowed her to approach her work from a spiritual standpoint.

Parish nurses are slowly but surely becoming a more common position within a pastoral team. While they don’t do the hands-on physical nursing, Christo said their role is integral for health care.

“There is a gap (in the health care system),” said Christo. “Spiritual care is missing. And that’s what parish nurses do.”

The role of a parish nurse varies day-by-day, person-by-person. Some of Christo’s experiences have included helping people through chronic or life-threatening illnesses, the loss of a loved one or the guilt of putting a parent or spouse in a nursing home. She has advocated for home care for some of her clients, and is involved in initiatives to promote healthy eating and active lifestyles.

To become a parish nurse, one must already be a registered nurse in good standing with their provincial College of Nurses, and then take a specialized course. Michelle O’Rourke, a registered nurse, co-ordinates one such specialized course, the Foundations in Parish Nursing education program offered through the Institute for Catholic Formation at St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont. This week-long ecumenical program was created in 2009 after the course at McMaster closed. Participants can choose to study for a Certificate in Parish Nursing upon completion. O’Rourke said the program provides the right training for nurses who want to approach health care practice in a different way.

“(Parish nurses) look at the whole person, body, mind and spirit, so they’re able to not just tend to the physical needs of someone,” said O’Rourke. “They’ll make sure (patients are) connected to the health care they need, but also go visit them from a pastoral perspective.”

And the familiarity between a parish nurse and the parishioner plays an important role. 

“In a parish, you know the people who are elderly, who are shut-ins, who don’t have family, who are going to surgery,” she said. “Even though they might have a nurse coming from a nursing service, the parish nurse has a different way that they help them because they’re in relationships with them from their faith community.”

The presence of parish nurses is increasing and O’Rourke hopes this will continue as people become more aware of the role a parish nurse can play in a faith community.

Sr. Ernestine La Plante, director of Parish Nursing Ministries for New Brunswick, said there is still misunderstanding as to what a parish nurse does because their purpose is more person-oriented than task-oriented.

“We go in the homes, we go to the nursing homes, wherever our clients are, and we are a listening presence,” said La Plante. “When you listen, you hear what is the major problem, and you can really reach the person.”

La Plante remembers one patient, a man in his 40s with cancer. He eventually succumbed to the disease, but La Plante saw there was a greater problem than his physical condition.

“He had some problems when he was young,” said La Plante. “He was never told that (his mother) was not his (biological) mother. He had never forgiven that.”

La Plante spent many hours talking with this man, talking through the painful experiences in his past. Three weeks before his death, she attended a Mass at his home. His mother was there.

“There was reconciliation there. And he went away very peacefully. It was really something.”

Being a parish nurse, said La Plante, “The most rewarding part is to feel that it’s really helpful. You can see that the person is really appreciative (that) we take the time to listen.”

La Plante worries for the future of parish nurses though.

“The needs are there, the needs are greater, but the financial situation is not easy,” she said.

But O’Rourke remains hopeful, as she has seen what a wonderful addition a parish nurse can be to a parish community.

“As Catholics and as Christians, part of our vocation is healing. Jesus left us that mission to preach and to teach and to heal,” said O’Rourke. “We do really well with the preaching and teaching but we don’t always concentrate enough on the healing.

“Parish nursing… brings healing and wholeness.”

To learn more about parish nursing, visit For information about the Foundations in Parish Nursing program visit

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