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Gratitude, joy of shut-ins the fruit of pyx ministry

As Cathy Kruse entered the gathering space at Heritage at Legacy assisted living community, her pace quickened. Close to 20 people were waiting.

“I’ve got Jesus!” she said in greeting. Smiles spread across the faces of the residents and their guests. “Good morning! The people of St. Wenceslaus are praying for you.” Indeed, the priest had just sent her out from 9 a.m. Mass with both the message and a blessing.

Kruse began reading the Liturgy of Holy Communion from her pyx card and then distributed Communion. (A pyx is a small round container used to carry the consecrated host for distribution to those unable to go to church.) After a pause for silent prayer and the concluding prayer, Kruse joked about fish for Sunday dinner.

Though her visit felt relaxed, she was on a mission. She had Communion for others at another facility before the Mass for Shut-ins TV broadcast began at 10:30.

Kruse is one of approximately 265 extraordinary ministers of holy Communion (EMHCs) at St. Wenceslaus Parish in Omaha. Thirty of them are pyx ministers, who take Communion to the homebound of the parish.

“They do a tremendous job connecting the sick and homebound to their parish and the church,” said Brother William Woeger, director of Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Omaha. One of his responsibilities is to train EMHCs.

Ethel Hershiser and Rena Fox, residents at Hillcrest, receive Communion Sundays from St. Wenceslaus’ pyx ministers.

“I hate that I can’t get there,” said Fox, who with her late husband were longtime members of St. Wenceslaus. She said receiving Sunday Communion is “just what I need. It fulfills something in here,” motioning to her chest.

Hershiser moved to Omaha four years ago following the death of her husband. They were life-long members of St. Patrick, O’Neill, but her children live in Omaha. Her connection to the parish was a “big part of my life – 86 years in St. Pat’s. Everything in Catholic life happened there.”“When I came here, they helped me find a church. I so appreciate that they come to me. If they didn’t come, I’d have such a void. It’s part of who I am,” Hershiser said.

Each August, Brother Woeger leads training sessions (only one is required), followed by mandation liturgy at St. Cecilia Cathedral and then a parish orientation. He said discussion by U.S. bishops about the laity becoming EMHCs occurred for many years before several dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Omaha, instituted EMHC programs around 1980.

“While it’s not meant to replace a priest visit, it’s a huge service. In some instances, it may not be possible for the local priest to get to the homebound of a parish,” he said.

Katie Staebell has been an EMHC for 17 years. She and her husband, Tom, have been members of St. Wenceslaus for 25. Her parents, who helped establish EMHCs in Arizona, were her inspiration. “It was wonderful to see lay people step up for that,” she said.

Many pyx ministers work one or two Sundays a month, but Staebell ministers weekly. For approximately 14 years she has been visiting five siblings from a founding family of the old St. Wenceslaus Parish. The remaining two sisters are now 100 and 96. She has accompanied them as they progressed from some mobility to “taking to bed.”

“We have gotten close over time. They are sharper than tacks. I am amazed by how faithful they are,” said Staebell, adding their visits are “extraordinary experiences, full of grace.”

“They are prayer warriors. Rosaries are always within reach. They have a list of people they pray for every day,” Staebell said, adding they pray all the time.

Kruse may not visit the same people every week, but she “takes Jesus” to the homebound nearly every Sunday. “I hope it doesn’t sound sacreligious to say that, but I feel so much joy in sharing him with others. I have loved this since the day I started. I felt it was my calling.”

Kruse’s motivation to be an EMHC was to take Communion to her mother-in-law, who was dying in 1997. “I’d never seen how important it was to receive until then,” she said.

When her son was killed in a car accident in 2003, Kruse “took a break” because she questioned God. She returned to pyx ministry four years ago when she and her husband, Bill, became members of St. Wenceslaus. Throughout all her questioning, she remembered how joyful one lady in particular was to receive Communion at home.

“The first person I went to see was all dressed up – makeup and hair – everything. I said, ‘You look beautiful,’ she said, ‘You just never know when Jesus is coming to get me. I need to be ready,’” said Kruse, still overcome with emotion by the memory. “Just think about that. They are so happy to receive Jesus. Most are sick or near the end of life and know they are closer to meeting him.”

Hershiser and Fox both expressed gratitude for the parish’s pyx ministry.

“I’m so happy St. Wenceslaus has people to bring us Communion. I feel closer to them, but I feel closer to Jesus, to God,” said Hershiser. “At my age my time is short and getting shorter, so I want to be closer and make sure I am ready.”