Mary Ricci, front left, facilitates a wellness program for her Cumberland parish. She is pictured with a group at a May meeting, where attendees taste-tested healthy food. Ricci is now offering her fourth session of the faith-based program. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

In 2016, Mary Freitag approached her then-pastor Fr. Tom Thompson at St. Anthony the Abbot in Cumberland about starting a health ministry. Eight years later, and following a pandemic hiatus, the ministry team is going strong and continues offering programs to the clustered parishes in Cumberland, Almena and Turtle Lake.

Freitag participated in a Northern Waters Parish Nurse Ministry weekend training with two nurses from area Lutheran churches. The organization, based in Superior, supports parish nurses serving faith communities across Northern Wisconsin with the goal of promoting holistic health and caring for mind, body and spirit.

While many of the NWPNM-trained parish nurses are employed by their church communities to make home visits, the Cumberland-based group decided to start small and offer a few wellness-focused programs. To assess local needs, a survey was conducted in all three parishes.

“We were really going strong, and then COVID hit,” Freitag said. “Then, everything was put on hold.”

Since then, the team has ramped up their ministry, offering monthly blood pressure screenings at the three cluster churches and fundraising to provide AEDs (automated external defibrillators) for each parish, one for the church proper and one in the gathering space.

One of the ministry team’s most successful initiatives, based on survey results, was a healthy weight loss program. Retired county medical examiner and EMS paramedic Mary Ricci, also a member at St. Anthony’s in Cumberland, had a particular interest in leading that program and began researching faith-based programs.

“After much praying and asking God for knowledge and guidance, he answered,” Ricci shared. “I sincerely believe he took me by the hand and led me to this program. I can’t explain it, but he set my heart on fire to keep moving forward with this endeavor.

“God never left me hanging, and he continues to guide me as I begin facilitating the fourth session. Through Scripture, he reminded me that our body is a temple he created and one we must respect and take care of.”

Ricci tested out the program herself and after one week felt better mentally, physically and spiritually. Offering the first session post-COVID, she was convicted it needed to be a face-to-face program and create a community of support. After the eight-week course called “New Life. Weight and Wellness: Take Charge of Your Health Journey,” the group wanted to continue. They have been meeting monthly now for 18 months.

The program begins with Scripture and prayer, includes discussion and addresses challenges as well as the importance of sleep, drinking enough water and knowing which foods help prevent chronic disease and foster longevity.

“I like to think we stress wellness and a healthy lifestyle more than weight loss,” Ricci said. “Weight loss is a bonus.”

The foods in the program help alleviate symptoms of many diseases and improve overall health, “but we must also remember that our ultimate healing comes from God,” Ricci affirmed.

The course ends with a graduation and a healthy meal prepared by Ricci and her husband of 51 years, David.
Participant testimonies highlight the program’s benefits. Mary Jobe started with the first session. She says she loved the health aspects and how they learned to include God in a health journey.

Maggie Wickre joined in on the second session. She said, “I joined just to be with friends. I had no idea it would make that much of a difference in my health and lifestyle. Thanks to our church for recognizing that the health of parishioners can be a mission of church, health and spirit.”

Meetings end with prayer, thanking God for his presence and asking for his continued blessings: “Do not let the learning and conversations of this gathering die, but instead, may they continue to ruminate within and bear fruit in our healthy lifestyle journey throughout the week.”

Ricci’s personal conclusion is simply gratitude for God’s leading her to the program. “I never imagined how successful it was going to be. It has brought members of our cluster churches together to connect or reconnect with one another. It is God and the program members who continue to inspire me.”

Freitag and a nurse from Sacred Heart parish in Almena, Roberta Braml, have been trained to offer a falls prevention course, “Stepping On,” developed by the Wisconsin Institute of Aging Health. This spring, their second session has 14 participants and a large waiting list.

Presentations on end-of-life concerns have been organized with Catholic United Financial and are some of the best attended. A friends and family Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) course was also very well received, and trainings are being planned for ushers so they know how to use the AEDs and how to assist when someone faints during a Mass or parish gathering.

Ricci also announces her presence when medical attention is needed, so ushers know where to go in case of an emergency.

Another aspect of this preparedness was obtaining “Stop the Bleed” kits and training in their use in case of an emergency.

One of Braml’s future hopes is to recruit volunteers to support caregivers: “Because of our elderly population, there are several people at Sacred Heart who are caring for mom or dad and they can’t even go to the store,” she said. She sees a real need to have volunteers who can give them a break and help caregivers take care of themselves.

Overall, the nurses are very pleased with what they have been able to offer their communities. Although the ministry is transparently faith-based, the programs have been open to anyone, and the ecumenical aspect has helped build relationships within their towns and with local government service agencies.

Most of their advertising has been by word-of-mouth. Communicating through local church bulletins and posting flyers on community bulletin boards has also been effective.

One of the most important factors has been the surveys conducted to ensure they were offering programs that “tapped into a need,” Freitag said. They hope to also find ways to involve younger medical professionals as volunteers and discover needs for healthy living that might benefit families.

One other parish offering health ministry is St. Bridget’s in River Falls, where Tom Zenk serves as parish nurse. Decades ago, his mother Mary Zenk was involved with a parish nurse program but nothing had been offered in years, so Zenk started it up again one-and-a-half years ago.

“I think parish nursing can be a valuable ministry for any parish or parish cluster,” he said, adding that he’s blessed to have the assistance of his wife, Heather, who is also a registered nurse, and Doris Cernohous. Their ministry includes blood pressure checks and answering simple health questions on a monthly basis after Masses. Zenk is also certified as a CPR instructor and offers certification classes for the parish once or twice a year.

St. Bridget’s health ministry, Zenk shared, “is also in the process of putting together a fully stocked nursing bag that will be kept at the church in the event that a parishioner has a medical concern.” They hope to offer future sessions on nutrition, when to seek emergency services and diabetes management.

“I’m very excited about where I see this program going in the future,” he added.

For more information, contact Freitag at 715-671-8879; Ricci at ; or Zenk at .