Eucharistic ministers hit the road to bring Easter service to homebounds

Palm fronds, a collection  of motley, plastic Easter eggs and a stack of Sunday bulletins from Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral lay across the back seat of Sister Sharon Bongiorno’s white Dodge Neon.

She cruises a few miles up the South Hill to Marie Kehrli’s seventh floor condo and gently pushes open the front door, which is propped ajar for her.

“Hello dear,” Kehrli croons as she navigates her wheelchair down the hallway toward her visitor.

Kehrli calls herself a “shut in.”

For 15 years she’s been homebound, unable to get to Mass because of a severe spinal cord injury. But Gospel readings, prayers, blessings and the Eucharist are still very much part of her weekly life, thanks to extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, known as eucharistic ministers, who regularly bring church to her – and the countless other homebound parishioners throughout Spokane.

Bongiorno, visiting coordinator of Our Lady of Lourdes, places the fronds and Easter eggs “filled with goodies” on the living room table, not far from the Easter cactus and the stuffed duck and rabbit she received from the church a few years ago.

“Easter week, I’ve always told Sister, is my favorite week of the entire year,” Kehrli, 82, said.

She has fond memories of taking in the beautifully decorated Holy Week altar at St. Ann’s Catholic Church with her parents from when she was a child, and occasionally visiting Our Lady of Lourdes.

“I hate to say it, but I envy the people who are able to go,” she said. “It’s a real honor to participate. I miss that very much.”

The same yearning to attend Mass pricks at Christmastime.

“You want to go to God,” she paused, then smiled. “But he somehow finds a way to come to you and it’s through the ministry of others.”

Eucharistic ministers each visit with their homebound differently. Some, like Bongiorno, pray with them and give them a blessing. Others read Scripture. They all carry the bread of Christ in a pyx and give Communion.

“It’s a special part of my day,” Kehrli says. “If I could never have it (the Eucharist) I would really be missing something.”

Bongiorno, who also brought many of the homebound ashes on Ash Wednesday, said keeping people connected with their parishes is important, adding that it’s also a rewarding ministry for the volunteers.

Karen Grewe is coordinator for the Eucharistic Ministers for the Homebound at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Spokane Valley. She and the other volunteers visit many people in their homes, as well as several parishioners in care facilities.

“We develop really good relationships with the people,” she said. “They look forward to us coming, and we look forward to going there. It’s a two-way street. You feel you’re bringing Christ to these people who otherwise wouldn’t get it and they really appreciate it.”

Like for 89-year-old Eileen Fisher who can no longer drive and looks forward to having a visitor each week, as well as receiving the Eucharist.

She said “receiving her Lord” is a key part of her spiritual life that helps her get through the rest of the week. Communion, she said, helps her remember to live each day like Jesus would.

Sue Huss is the volunteer coordinator for the homebound ministry – St. Elizabeth’s Ministry – at St. Thomas More Parish. She said the Holy Spirit called her to this work after she retired from teaching, and said visiting those who can’t attend Mass is especially important during the Easter season.

“If you think about Catholicism as a whole, or Christians in general, the belief is that Jesus died and rose from the dead for all of us,” she said. “This is a good reminder to people about that, about what they have to look forward to in the future. It’s a happy time, it’s spring time.”

The Rev. Pat Kerst, of St. Mary’s, said Easter is a sacred time, even for the homebound parishioners who have lost touch with the liturgical calendar.

“They might lose the rhythm of participating, so it’s just another day in some respects” he said, “but to lay a layer of theology on it, we see every Sunday as a little Easter, so one can argue that it’s good for them that every day is like that because every Sunday is a little Easter when we proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”