Leesburg parish eases elderly isolation

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In his March 4 weekly audience, Pope Francis devoted his message to the elderly and the problems confronting them.

"Thanks to the progress of medicine, lifespans have increased: But society has not 'expanded' to life," said the pope.

"While we are young, we are led to ignore old age, as if it were a disease to keep away from," said the pope. "Then when we become old, especially if we are poor, if we are sick and alone, we experience the shortcomings of a society programmed for efficiency, which consequently ignores its elderly."

For those living in nursing or assisted living homes, the separation can have a damaging effect on body and spirit. The elderly can feel isolated from family, friends or a longtime parish home like St. John the Apostle Church in Leesburg.

To help Catholics at area nursing and assisted living homes, the parish, under the direction of Father John P. Mosimann, pastor, has an active ministry for the aged that makes weekly visits to seven Leesburg area institutions.

The ministry visits Morningside House, Madison House, Sunrise at Leesburg, Spring Harbor, Heritage Hall, Meadow Glen and INOVA Loudoun Nursing and Rehabilitation.

Father Francis J. Peffley, parochial vicar, celebrates Mass once a month at Heritage Hall and INOVA Loudoun Nursing and Rehabilitation. Communion, prayer and companionship are offered weekly by other parish ministries.

While all the priests of the parish visit the sick and elderly, Father Peffley is the primary priest for Mass celebrations and anointings.

There are also special sacramentals offered like ashes on Ash Wednesday.

"And it's not only for the residents," said Father Peffley.

Many of the staff, including nurses, receive ashes. Often work schedules make receiving ashes at their home parish difficult, so this opportunity is a blessing, he said.

Father Peffley is the spiritual director of the Legion of Mary, Arlington Regia Headquarters. His parents met at the Legion of Mary, and he joined the group when he was 10, so it's a special ministry for him.

Father Peffley is assisted in this ministry by many parishioners. It's a demanding ministry, where volunteers sometimes are thrust into the life and death drama of the elderly.

At St. John, the Legion of Mary helps minister to nursing and assisted living homes, and legionary Sheila Ralph organizes the visits.

Ralph said that six legionaries visit three nursing homes: Heritage Hall, INOVA Loudoun Nursing and Rehabilitation, and Spring Arbor. Two legionaries recite the rosary weekly at Heritage Hall. Ralph said they visit in pairs, so they would like to expand their numbers and cover the remaining homes.

"We offer (the residents) visitation, prayers and friendship," said Ralph. "Residents will talk to us and ask questions."

According to Ralph, the visits have resulted in three conversions over the past two years.

"One woman wanted to be Catholic, but the family opposed it," she said.

The family eventually allowed the conversion, and she died the day after her baptism, first Communion and confirmation.

Ralph said that if they find someone who is very sick or who wants to confess, they contact Father Peffley.

"We can send him a text message and he responds very quickly," she said.

The parish schedules activities that are not just spiritual. The St. John's Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of Columbus, Holy Family Council, visits the homes and provides more social help for the residents.

Kathy Calhoun, president, said that her group organizes parties for special events like Valentine's Day. They also have casino nights and board game days.

There are three parishioners who schedule extraordinary ministers of holy Communion to visit all seven nursing and assisted living homes.

Michele Litton schedules 26 ministers to bring consecrated hosts to Spring Harbor, Heritage Hall and Sunrise, plus home visits. Once a month she schedules Mass at Heritage Hall.

She said that it would surprise people to know that visiting the sick and dying is not a sad experience for her.

"It's not depressing because you are praying for them, and you become attached," she said.

Litton also praised Father Peffley for his quick response to special circumstances involving the residents.

"No matter what, he gets back to you," she said. "Father Peffley's visit gives them hope."

Marie Carpenter schedules extraordinary ministers of holy Communion to visit three assisted living homes: Madison House, Morningside and Meadow Glen. She finds the experience fulfilling and satisfying.

"They're happy to have you come and pray, talk to and sing with," she said. "I wouldn't give it up for the world."

Since 1999, Terry McCarthy and his wife Teresa have been serving the spiritual needs of INOVA Loudoun Nursing and Rehabilitation. It's an assisted living center where Terry and his wife, plus four other parishioners, provide a weekly communion service in the home's sun room. It's a service like a Mass, said McCarthy, with candles, an altar cloth and crucifix, but there's no consecration. The consecrated hosts are brought from St. John.

On average, there's a population of 29 Catholic residents at the facility. Only about 10 are healthy enough to make the trip to the sun room. Residents unable to make the service have communion brought to them. Many of the residents McCarthy serves are at the end of their lives, and it is a moving thing to witness the transformation that happens to the residents receiving communion.

"We can see the light of the Lord on their faces," he said. "It's been an inspiring ministry for us."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015