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Stephen Ministers offer support for difficult times

Father Bob Deehan, pastor of Holy Family Parish, Duxbury with Stephen Ministry leaders Bob Lyons, Barbara McMorrow, Eileen Cerne and Deacon Art Keefe. Pilot photo/courtesy Holy Family Parish

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DUXBURY -- All the experts agree, and maybe we all know it intuitively: You can't skirt your way around grief when life's inevitable sad times come your way. Grief is something one must go through to get to a better place, to heal. And Stephen Ministry is there to help.

Founded in 1975, Stephen Ministry is a lay caring ministry that operates in more than 13,000 Christian congregations in the U.S. and Canada, and in 30 other countries as well. Stephen Ministry caregivers are trained to provide confidential, Christ-centered support to people who are hurting, usually on a one-to-one basis with weekly meetings for a year or more.

Here in the Archdiocese of Boston, two Catholic parishes offer the program: Good Shepherd in Wayland, and Holy Family in Duxbury, where Deacon Art Keefe started the program seven years ago.

"I had never heard of Stephen Ministry until my brother died," recalled Deacon Keefe, "and the Lutheran church in Holliston he'd attended had the program. Bottom line, I never saw anyone grieve as well and with as much support as my sister-in-law Linda did."

Inspired by the effectiveness of the program, Deacon Keefe began the ministry at Holy Family in 2012 with enthusiastic support from the pastor, Father Bob Deehan. A dozen people came to the first information session, including caregiver Eileen Cerne.

"I look at it as a work in progress," said Cerne. "We started out with lots of training for the would-be ministers -- there is so much guidance available through the main Stephen Ministries office in St. Louis, finding different ways of improving ourselves over time. Our ministry here at Holy Family is so much richer now than it was at the beginning. We gain as much as our care receivers, and also gain a tremendous amount from each other. It becomes a piece of our lives."

And Stephen caregivers are much more than well-meaning parishioners with an empathetic ear. They are well trained to help people deal with grief over the loss of a loved one, as well as other difficult circumstances.

"Divorce, loss of a job, chronic or terminal illness, loneliness...we receive training in all these areas," said Cerne.

Stephen leaders and caregivers meet regularly for mutual support and ongoing discussion on how best to minister to those in need of help. New caregivers receive about 50 hours of training over several months before being matched with a care receiver -- women working exclusively with women, and men with men.

The newest Stephen leader (but longtime caregiver) at Holy Family is Barbara McMorrow, a retired nurse who "went to school" in St Louis, as she put it, for an intense week of leadership training a year ago, coming back with a box of information weighing a hefty 32 pounds.

McMorrow had volunteered for hospice for a few years before discovering Stephen Ministry.

"It's been such a gift for me," said McMorrow. "In my years, I've had six care receivers, and each in her own way has made my life a lot richer, being there for a person in need of someone to listen. And that's what Stephen ministers do -- we listen. We are good listeners. And our care receivers know that. Some open up right away, and for others, it can take months, but I look back and see where they started and where they are at the end of the year -- it's God working miracles, working through us to help them."

Cerne's background is in mental health, so she felt comfortable dealing with people in crisis, but wondered -- how would she share her faith with them?

"When I go and meet with someone, I try to find out where they are in their faith life, and then work on how I can meet them there. Some are more comfortable with the Bible, so I have learned to use the Bible more. We always end by thanking God for the time together. It's the Holy Spirit working through all this," Cerne said.

"We don't want people to feel pressured into something they don't want," added McMorrow. "Some people are not in a good place with God, perhaps angry with God. Stephen ministers honor and respect that, but the fact that they have considered Stephen Ministry tells you that they are not entirely ready to cut God out of the picture. Who was it who said, 'Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words?' Even though we don't talk about it a lot, they do see our faith through our actions."

Deacon Keefe, McMorrow, Cerne and fellow parishioner Bob Lyons form the caregiver leadership team at Holy Family that has seen about 40 different ministers over the years make the commitment to help others through this unique program, and they are currently looking for more volunteers to join the Stephen Ministry team.

Training sessions will be held Wednesday evenings at the parish hall starting on Oct. 2, and Deacon Keefe hopes the ministry spreads to other Catholic parishes in the archdiocese as well.

On Saturday, Sept. 7, Holy Family Parish will host an introductory workshop from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. featuring an instructor from the Stephen Ministries' home office. All interested persons are cordially invited to attend.

Deacon Keefe was in prison ministry for 20 years ("some of my best friends are former inmates," he says), but Stephen Ministry has become his mission at Holy Family.

"It has enriched me now in my mid-70's beyond anything I would have imagined," he said. "I started it because of losing my only brother, whom I loved. It means so much to see the good we are doing here."

For more information on the Sept. 7 Stephen Ministry workshop or the Holy Family training sessions, please contact Deacon Art Keefe at 781-264-3880 or akeefe@holyfamilyduxbury.org.

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