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End of life care an honorable duty for sisters (w/video)

By Elena Watts
Feb. 13, 2014 at 10 p.m.
Updated Feb. 14, 2014 at 8:15 p.m.

Sister Pauline Marie Ermis  is old, frail and blind but that doesn't prevent her from praying continuously for those in need. From her bedside, Ermis  keeps her spirituality alive by helping those on the prayer list  outside the small chapel in the health care unit at the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament Convent.

A dozen sisters gathered around the bed of Sister George Vasek during her final moments on Earth.

They were reciting the Litany of the Saints aloud from their blue prayer booklets when volunteer Mary Jeansonne arrived.

"Lord, have mercy on us."

"Christ," the prayer leader said.

"Have mercy on us," the sisters responded.

"Lord."

"Have mercy on us."

"Christ."

"Hear us."

A reverent rhythm of prayer filled the room.

Jeansonne had arrived at the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament Convent to help the sisters with their angel watch, a prayer vigil kept around the clock during the final hours and days of a sister's life.

Vasek died peacefully at 97 in 2010.

"You could feel the presence of angels," Jeansonne said. "I envisioned them fluttering there, praying with us, touching the heads of each person standing around the bed."

The physical and spiritual care provided the unwell sisters in the second-floor health care unit of the convent is imbued with/ genuine love.

Unlike the secular world, where fear and sadness often come with aging and death, the sisterhood grows more joyful with age.

Many people view the sisters' abandonment of many worldly pleasures as the ultimate sacrifice.

Conversely, the sisters know they have found the only thing in the world worth having - God's love, the pursuit of His will and the support they find in each other.

In essence, helping sisters with the process of death is the same as helping mothers with the process of birth, said Sister Paschaline Kutac, who was once a labor and delivery nurse in Jourdanton.

"It's a joyous experience to assist someone to eternity," she said.

Death rooted in faith is a celebration of new life, said Sister Stephana Marbach, general superior.

"We wave joyful, sometimes tearful, goodbyes from our shore," Marbach said. "And the departed are met with joyful greetings from the eternal shore."

At the convent, the experience is very different from the hospitals or nursing homes with their machinery, chemicals and intercoms, Marbach said.

"Never in all my time there have I seen any dirt or uncleanliness or smelled anything," said Mary Margaret Reiger, another volunteer of almost 10 years. "The smell is the first thing that hits you when you walk into a nursing home."

The health inspector once asked Kutac, registered nurse and director of nursing at the convent, for permission to enter the convent's infirmary when it was his time to go.

"They turn the sisters every two hours, and you never see a bed sore," Reiger said.

As part of the angel watch, Reiger once sat with a sister from a small order of nuns, the Poor Clares, which the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament had admitted to their infirmary.

Reiger wanted to relieve the two Poor Clare sisters who helped care for Sister Antoinette Madden.

"I sat with her all day, and I had never experienced anything like it in my life," Reiger said. "She was comatose, so we weren't talking, but I was a sponge, soaking up whatever was in that room."

Reiger did not want to leave and intended to return the next day to sit with the sister again.

That night, the oldest sister in the convent, who was down the hall from Madden, saw angels in her room. She told them to go two doors down.

The youngest sister in the convent saw angels in the hallway, and Madden died that night.

The Poor Clares told Reiger later that they believed God allowed the oldest and youngest sisters to see the angels as a reward for admitting Madden into their infirmary.

"The angels come," Reiger said. "I know because I feel them."

During an angel watch, a different sister or volunteer sits and prays with the dying sister every hour.

They read scriptures aloud, say the Rosary or pray silently holding hands, Jeansonne said.

In the final hours, all the sisters gather around the sister's bed and in the hallway outside her room.

Father Phi Nguyen, the full-time chaplain, gives the sacrament of anointing.

They recite scriptural texts such as the Litany of the Saints and the Commendation of the Dying as well as familiar prayers like the rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet. And they sing familiar hymns to put the sister at peace.

"God has called us together," Marbach said. "It's the reason we're here - to assist each other."

Fifty of 73 sisters in the congregation live in the convent. They work in jobs and ministries in the motherhouse or in the community.

The other 23 sisters live and work elsewhere in Victoria or in other communities.

Sister Callista Mares, 96, is one of 16 sisters who currently lives in the infirmary full time. Six to eight others visit daily for outpatient services.

Three shifts of four licensed vocational nurses and one registered nurse rotate 24 hours per day. The floor's maximum capacity is 30 patients.

Mares has been in the congregation for more than 75 years.

She and the other sisters who are mobile attend Mass each day in the infirmary chapel.

Mares' days are spent praying for the returned health of the individuals listed on the board at the end of the hallway and for those listed in the book downstairs.

"It's beautiful here," Mares said. "I wouldn't want to be any other place."

The 100,000-square-foot Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament Convent has remained a mystery to many since its construction in 1963.

Jeansonne taught at Hopkins Elementary School across the street from the convent for 15 years and described her journey to volunteer in the headquarters as slow.

"What is that huge castle over there?" she asked herself many times driving down Water Street. "Other than the gift shop, I didn't know I was allowed in."

Now, Jeansonne attends Mass in the chapel, roams the hallways as a volunteer and plays dominoes with the sisters.

"We are an enigma to many who do not know who the sisters are," Marbach said. "The convent is a powerhouse of prayer."

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