By JOANNE FOX
Father Merlin Schrad goes to the hospital every day.
It’s not because the pastor of St. Patrick Church in Estherville and Immaculate Conception Church in Graettinger has health issues.
Father Schrad, like most pastors in the Diocese of Sioux City, visits patients in the hospitals as part of his ministry.
Auxiliary services that priests provide – such as visits to hospitals and nursing homes – may be reduced when Ministry 2025, pastoral planning for the diocese is implemented next year.
Father Schrad, who is a member of the Priests Personnel Board – which suggests where pastors might be assigned – said those auxiliary services are being examined when assignments are being discussed.
“As churches move to oratories and priests are assigned to larger geographic areas, we examine how our ministry – outside of sacramental ministry – may change,” he said. “I think lay people may have to step up to the plate.”
Although the laity may perceive permanent deacons as the answer to these auxiliary ministries, Father Schrad cautioned about viewing them as a solution, since there may be other responsibilities a deacon might have in a parish.
“There are no deacons in Palo Alto and Emmet counties, so it may not be fair to assign one from another parish to help,” he said. “Also, some of our deacons have full-time jobs and that limits their availability to be of service.”
Currently, Father Schrad visits the hospitals in Estherville and Spirit Lake daily, and he has been called to the Emmetsburg and Rochester, Minn., hospitals, as well.
“Area nursing home and hospice patients, I see every day, too,” he said. “I celebrate Mass at two nursing homes in Estherville every Thursday.”
Add to these circumstances, the incredible influx of people in the Lakes area in the summer months, Father Schrad pointed out.
“With that huge addition of people, I will help out at Milford and Spirit Lake, especially for the sacrament of reconciliation,” he said. “We have retired priests who help, but people need to realize this is another challenge.”
In essence, Father Schrad emphasized his hospital, nursing home, hospice visits will remain the same after Ministry 2025 is implemented.
“My ministry to others will not change much, because I’m not going to change much,” he said. “I think it’s important that people understand what may happen.”
Mary Kaufmann was recently named spiritual care director at St. Anthony’s Regional Hospital and Nursing Home in Carroll. She took over duties offered by Peg Scheidt, who retired this year after 30-plus years of service.
“Spiritual care is an important component at St. Anthony’s,” said Ed Smith, St. Anthony president and CEO. “We are excited Mary joined our team and is looking to grow our offerings that reflect our Franciscan heritage.”
Mass is celebrated Monday through Friday in the nursing home chapel; Sunday Mass is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Patients may watch Mass in their rooms, since it is televised, Kaufmann explained.
“Father Tim Johnson (pastor of Holy Spirit in Carroll and St. Mary’s in Willey) celebrates Mass for us,” she said. “We also have a combination of five other priests who help out.”
In any given week, Kaufmann estimated more than 20 clergy – of any denomination – stop in to visit patients.
“We are a very ecumenical center and work hard to cultivate relationships,” she said. “We have certified chaplains who are available to provide emotional and spiritual support to patients and their families.”
Kaufmann clarified that spiritual care goes beyond sacramental ministry. Chaplains provide an opportunity for prayer, spiritual counseling, grief ministry and guidance regarding medical ethics.
“We have such a good involvement of our retired priests,” she said. “We can call on them and feel confident our patients’ spiritual care needs will be met.”
Kaufmann admitted it was difficult to predict how Ministry 2025 would impact the healthcare center.
“Illness can be stressful enough,” she said. “However, I believe we have a comprehensive plan in place to meet the spiritual needs of our patients.”
In its heyday and the peak of religious vocations, Cherokee County had five priests assigned to parishes.
“I’m all they get now!” quipped Father Dan Guenther, pastor of Immaculate Conception in Cherokee and Holy Name in Marcus.
In addition to the parishes, Father Guenther ministers to six nursing homes in Cherokee County.
“I usually have Mass once a month at each,” he said. “We also have a hospital in Cherokee which I visit twice a week.
Another ministry unique to Father Guenther and Cherokee is the Mental Health Institute and on the grounds is the state of Iowa sex offenders unit.
“I go there about every four to six weeks to have Mass with the Catholics,” he said. “Other times I am called to the behavioral unit of MHI if someone wants to visit with a priest.”
Beyond Cherokee, Father Guenther is on the road to Marcus, Cleghorn, Meriden, Aurelia, Washta, Quimby and Larrabee.
“I either have nursing homes in some of these towns or homebound folks to visit,” he said. “On the average, I travel between 800 to 1,200 miles a month for the parishes, sometimes even up to 1,500 miles if there are additional meetings in the diocese to attend.”
The challenge often comes in trying to juggle schedules, Father Guenther confessed.
“Whenever I get a funeral – and in the county I had 30-plus last year – it becomes a matter of re-scheduling this meeting or that appointment so as to have the time needed for the funeral, wake, burial, preparation, and so on,” he said. “Often times I’ve lost my weekly day off, too, and people tell me to re-schedule the day off later, but that would just mess up more schedules and appointments.”
Both pastors acknowledged they are pulled in different directions, much of the time.
“I’m not able to celebrate Masses with the religious education classes as much as I would like to,” Father Schrad said. “I would love to spend more time with our families and children, the newly-married, but there is just not the time, and sometimes, parishioners think I should be available immediately and I just cannot accommodate their requests.”
“I know there are many parish organizations that would like to have the priest present at their meetings, such as the Ladies Guild, CDA, KCs, youth programs and more, but I just seldom get to these meetings and I think some in those programs feel slighted,” Father Guenther said. “As I often say to the folks – and even to myself at times – you gotta make it work! And we do.”