WABASHA, Minn. — Hair perfectly coiffed and nails newly painted, Mary Ann Witte calmly rocked her chair as she chatted with Deacon Jim Weingart and Barb Mathias. The familiar banter revolved around holidays, health and the decals Weingart's wife had created on Witte's nails.
After seven years at the assisted living facility, the 96-year-old Wabasha native has become a fixture at Saint Elizabeth's Medical Center. She's among more than 150 patients and residents who are benefiting from the Spiritual Care Companion pilot program Weingart created in 2015.
"I think it's a wonderful thing," said Witte, the matriarch of an 80-member family tree that lives scattered across the Midwest. "I actually have a lot of visitors, but many people don't so they really enjoy the company."
The program was created after the deacon found himself stretched thin while trying to provide prayer and comfort to those in need. Weingart typically focuses his time on the 25-bed acute care unit, but that made it difficult to visit the 100-bed nursing home and 47-bed assisted living facility that are also located on site.
Thus, the Spiritual Care Companion program was born.
Weingart and his group of faithful volunteers now visit Witte and others on a regular basis. The visits can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, depending on the interest and dialogue. The latest training session included 11 volunteers who shared stories and techniques for connecting with strangers after nearly 3,000 visits.
Weingart said he's constantly recruiting — often from the region's retired population — in hopes of increasing on-site communication at Saint Elizabeth's.
"The whole idea is very simple," Weingart told the Post-Bulletin . "Our companions are trained to make regular and routine visits, and just walk the path with them. It's very folksy. It's very low key."
The program gives residents the chance to explore their spirituality, he said.
"Sometimes we find someone in pain and they're too tired to talk. They just want someone to be present and that's OK. But sometimes they want someone to reflect on their life or we get into deep spiritual discussions," Weingart said.
The program has been supported by Ascension Health and shared within Catholic Diocese of Wisconsin. Jenny Schlagenhaft, communications director at Saint Elizabeth's, said there have been numerous inquiries from other health care facilities across the Midwest, that are interested in similarly leveraging volunteers in the face of reduced resources.
Schlagenhaft said the ecumenical program "aligns beautifully" with the faith-based mission of the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, which seeks "to further the healing ministry of Jesus by continually improving the health and well-being of all people, especially the poor, in the communities we serve."
"When (the Spiritual Care Companions) continue to see the same residents, they're beginning to build relationships and trust that open doors to more meaningful conversations," Schlagenhaft said.
Mathias, a 64-year-old Lake City resident who worked 17 years in the Kasson-Mantorville School District, was one of the program's first volunteers. She was familiar with Saint Elizabeth's because her sister, Kathy, also volunteers and their mother spent time in Saint Elizabeth's.
Now ordained as an Episcopal priest, Mathias spends much of her time visiting with the elderly or infirm in Lake City and Wabasha. Witte's face lit up when she visited recently; reminding Mathias of a prior conversation she'd had with another patient.
"One woman actually asked me 'Where have you been all these years?'" Mathias said. "That really touched me. How many other people have been thinking about that? I don't want anyone to be forgotten."
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Post-Bulletin.