Perri Pitman Parker, a parishioner at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Aloha, travels the roads that wind up “pill hill” in southwest Portland to get to the city’s Veterans Hospital on Wednesdays. Once there, she serves patients as an extraordinary Eucharistic minister. She spends from less than an hour to almost three hours each visit.
She and Vieda Baker, who is also a cantor at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, have worked together for years now, and they always begin their volunteer time in the chapel. “You can’t bring your dailies in with you,” says Parker, referring to any concerns she may be feeling.
Baker, who has a master’s of divinity through Marylhurst, and Parker, who describes herself as an “accidental minister,” make a good team. Baker jokes with the crowd in the elevator, inviting them to happy hour at her house after work. Parker gently tells each patient being visited why she and Baker are at their bedside.
After administering the Eucharist, the two linger should the patient want to talk.
It’s a ministry of corporal mercy, Parker notes. “There are those who are scared, who cry, and who could use another Catholic to hold their hand. We stand in for priests and deacons, and Christ is with us each time.”
When Parker says that there are times someone needs someone to hold their hand, it’s no metaphor. She vividly remembers the time a patient, surrounded with medical personnel, was clearly terrified. She took his hand and he calmed.
That may have been the Holy Spirit telling her what to do, she thinks. That’s not uncommon. She never runs out of Communion wafers and often has exactly the right amount.
Most days they take their list of names, Catholics who may wish to receive the Eucharist, and make their way through the clean and friendly wards at the hospital.
Many patients don’t want Communion. Baker says that during training they were told to never take that personally. Patients cannot say no very often; it could be that the patient felt the need to say no even more than they needed Christ at that moment.
Parker and Baker have other graces to offer — a small paper with the act of contrition typed on it; finger rosaries, even full rosaries.
When the patient does say yes, and repeats the Lord’s prayer with the women, takes the wafer in his or her mouth, it is a time of reverence and calm.
Right now there are too few Eucharistic ministers volunteering at the hospital for the up to 20 Catholic patients asking for communion on any particular day.
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are covered, but that leaves Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and, crucially, Sunday. Parker is putting out a plea for more volunteers in this Year of Mercy. “We’re only asking that you take one day a week,” she says.
She admits there are some bureaucratic roadblocks volunteers must negotiate before they can come and go with the freedom she does. It can take up to six months before a eucharistic minister can visit patients on their own. Until then, someone from the chaplain’s office accompanies the volunteer. A volunteer must have a recommendation from both their parish and the archdiocese. Then their volunteer service comes under the auspices of Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services.
“We’d ask people to please take a moment to pray and see if this is where they can help serve the Lord,” Parker says. “We need some help.”
Another way to help is through the No Vet Dies Alone program, which sends volunteers in to sit with dying vets who have no family.
Ednote: Contact the Reverend Thomas Phillips, [email protected], head of the Chaplain's Office, for more information. Parker ([email protected]) says she’d be happy to answer questions as well.