Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Parish Nurses Provide Wholistic Approach To Healing

By KATHRYN MORAN, Special Contributor | Published April 22, 2004

Dolores Riccardi had been practicing nursing at St. Joseph’s Hospital Coronary Care Unit for 14 years. After seeing many patients’ problems swept under the rug in favor of short-term stays and cures, Riccardi realized two frustrating trends: insurance companies directed the care of patients instead of medical professionals and many of the root causes of patients’ illnesses or diseases were not being addressed. Riccardi knew she had a calling to a more wholistic nursing approach. Since she was part of the St. Joseph’s community already, Riccardi was aware of a new parish nurse program starting in Atlanta.

In 1995, when Sharon Stanton became the director of St. Joseph’s Center for Health Ministries, she felt the addition of a parish nurse program was desperately needed since health in many communities had become centered on “curing” and the Atlanta community needed a more wholistic approach to health. Recognizing the tradition of the church in having concern and care for those who are ill and the many religious orders established to care for the ill as well as hospitals built by the church, Stanton wanted to help reinstate congregation-based health ministry. St. Joseph’s Center for Health Ministry “identifies the congregation as the place for health promotion and disease prevention.” Stanton recalls Jesus’ words in John 10:10, “I came that (you) might have life and have it to the full.”

The Bible is full of stories of health and healing. St. Joseph’s Center and the Health Ministries Association see “health (as) more than absence of disease. It has to do with all of life—decent housing, good recreational facilities, good schools and jobs, spiritual values, healthy attitudes, a purpose for living and love of neighbors.”

Riccardi, the present parish nurse at All Saints Church in Dunwoody, and many others of varying faith traditions have benefited from the parish nurse program established at St. Joseph’s. Stanton initiated the program on her own, basing her basic education program on a model by Rosemarie Mattheaus who was a pediatric nurse in Wisconsin and who brought her program to Marquette University.

The purpose of the parish nurse program at St. Joseph’s Hospital is to “encourage, develop and sustain congregational health ministry through partnering with…health ministers.” St. Joseph’s provides basic preparation, education, training and resources to a network of member congregations. The annual fee for a congregation is $1,500.

Currently in the United States only 3 percent of the nation’s health budget is spent on prevention. With church budgets being tight, many parishes have not had resources to hire parish nurses, yet the people of their communities are not receiving what they need strictly from the medical community. A parish nurse is qualified to help those who typically would employ the help of a pastor or would simply go without the health ministry they need. Parish nurse employment can also vary from 10 to 40 hours a week. Most of the parish nursing being done in the United States is in Protestant churches.

Six years ago, Msgr. R. Donald Kiernan, pastor of All Saints Parish, recognized the close relationship between health and spirituality and the great need for a parish nurse, so he decided to allocate funds along with a monetary gift given to the church to build an office and hire a parish nurse. The response has been “phenomenal,” said Riccardi, who is the parish’s second nurse. “Many people feel they can come to me that would never come through the front doors to ask for help.” Since Riccardi became the parish nurse, she has initiated a new team called CareForce because people in the community no longer have families nearby to care for them. CareForce provides “practical, emotional and spiritual support” through the help of over 100 volunteers and is based on a University of Alabama program begun in the 1980s to care for HIV-AIDS patients.

During the past years Riccardi has organized for All Saints to host such programs as mobile mammography, prostate screening, Canscreen, a healing Mass with Father Steven Yander, the Critical Choice program, Take Heart Plus, stroke screening, vascular assessment, an addiction workshop, talks on ovarian cancer and nutrition for children.

On a daily basis, Riccardi values making everyday lifelines and connections. She is familiar with people’s faces and lives and if she hasn’t seen them recently, Riccardi said, “I can call those who tend to be forgotten and … welcome them back to the church or send someone out to see them.”

“I answer many e-mails and calls for people who need help, whether it is a surrogate grandparent, an appraisal on a house, transportation to a doctor’s appointment or house-cleaning.”

Linda Lizaso, formerly the parish nurse at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Alpharetta, started working there largely through a grassroots effort calling for health ministry within their parish. Lizaso recalls that “we had a need for basic healthcare, to educate on how the healthcare system works, and also a need by many wanting to be healthier – mind, body and spirit.” The pastor at the time, Father Al Jowdy, was very supportive of the idea, and a group of parishioners raised the funds and partnered with St. Joseph’s to make this dream a reality.

Lizaso had previously worked in religious education and went back to get a nursing degree. She worked at St. Joseph’s for two years, then became a parish nurse, continuing in the position until the end of 2003. She describes parish nursing as “very different, not clinical … it is a lot about teaching, advocacy, referrals and programs … it is very rewarding.” Last year she organized a four-part CPR class, a 13-week stress class, flu shot vaccinations and many pro-bono health services to the needy of the community.

Healing that can hopefully lead to a cure is the focus of health ministry. Lizaso has seen first-hand the wholistic need for treatment when she and her bilingual husband were able to help and be an advocate for a 20-year-old man going through chemotherapy for bone cancer. “He was wondering what the doctors were saying and was scared,” recalls Lizaso. They were able to accompany him on visits, translate for him and then legally bring his parents from Mexico to the United States to support him through his illness.

While Stanton advocates a need to return healing to the church in the form of parish nursing, she is cautious to point out that parish nursing does not replace other needed ministries in the church; it simply enhances and unifies them, acting as a referral to others and a support. One of the greatest roles of parish nurses, said Stanton, is advocacy. St. Joseph’s Center for Health Ministries realizes in a society where stress and anxiety, economic uncertainty, anger and frustration and hopelessness are more abundant and are contributing to many health problems, that a move from secular healthcare to sacred healing is needed. June Wilkerson of the Health Ministries Association offers these few thoughts on the idea: “Cure eliminates the disease, healing gives wholeness to the person; cure isolates, healing incorporates; cure is a closed system, healing is an open system; cure encounters mystery and tries to understand it; healing encounters mystery as a channel for meaning; cure rejects death and sees it as a defeat, healing includes death as one of the blessed outcomes of life; and cure seeks to conquer pain, healing transcends it.”

In recalling 1 Corinthians 12:27-28, Paul writes, “You, then, are the body of Christ. Every one of you is a member of it. Furthermore, God has set up in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracle workers, healers, assistants, administrators and those who speak in tongues.”

Many faith traditions are realizing that congregation-based health ministry will bring about a revolution in worldwide healthcare systems. The International Parish Nurse Resource Center was established in 1987 to do research and to train parish nurses and in 1989 the Health Ministries Association, Inc. began as an “interfaith membership organization for those promoting health and wellness in congregation-based health programs.”

If you are interested in becoming a parish nurse or starting a health ministries program at your parish, please contact Sharon Stanton, director of St. Joseph’s Center for Health Ministries, at (404) 851-5902 or e-mail More information about the program can be found at