ENID, Okla. — Willard Patocka, at age 88, has maintained an energy level that men half as old would envy.
Patocka is in his 49th year of carrying the Eucharist in the celebration of Mass in the Catholic Church. After attending services at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, he spends his Sundays serving the Eucharist to fellow Catholics in local nursing homes. When he started, he was only the fourth lay minister qualified to perform the service. He has been a regular at nursing homes since retiring in 1996.
As part of his works of faith, he has traditionally taken ashes to those in nursing homes on Ash Wednesday.
“It’s the just personal satisfaction of helping somebody that is in need,’’ Patocka said. “There aren’t just enough priests to do it to go around and visit all of those people. That’s why I do it ... to help them out.’’
But Patocka’s work has been stopped recently since nursing homes have been shut down due to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.
“I won’t be going back until it clears up,’’ he said. “Maybe in a couple of weeks ... I don’t know. You just wait and see. I don’t want to carry something in there or get something. You just have to hold off until then.’’
He also has been called in the past to give communion at hospitals.
The sacrament usually takes about five minutes, with Patocka reading Scripture and sharing prayers. He is there as a friend first and foremost.
“I get to know these people,’’ Patocka said. “A lot of them don’t have any family or people to visit them.’’
His age gives him the patience often needed when dealing with such parishioners.
“I do understand them better,’’ he said. “I have a lot of patience. You just keep going and it will work out.’’
Serving his own
Many of his parishioners are people he knew from the church. He also helps with funerals, some of which are to honor people he once served.
“You help take care of them,’’ Patocka said. “You want to be there to help during their final days.’’
He not only serves people from his own church but St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church as well. He has served people from Bison, Hennessey and Medford.
He said it all started at the bequest of Father Lewyn.
“I told him I would do it, and I’ve been doing it ever since,’’ he said. “People tell me I get around, and I feel like this work has helped me keep my health as good as it’s been.’’
Patocka’s biggest challenge was serving a retired priest from Tulsa.
“That was the hardest person for me,’’ Patocka said. “I had to make sure that I did everything right. He thanked me every time. He was very appreciative of me seeing him.’’
Patocka also served a number of retired nuns whom he said were easier to serve.
Patocka has been active in the Knights of Columbus since 1962. He’s been the Grand Knight there and has been president of the KOC Foundation. He serves on the board of the KOC’s house for the mentally challenged in Okarche.
“Most of these people knew me before I started serving them,’’ Patocka said. “I’ve always gotten along with people real well. They have respect for me. I’m going to continue to do this as long as I can. I know they look forward to me coming in and seeing them every Sunday.’’
‘It’s a very special thing’
Carolyn Semrad, also of Saint Francis Xavier, has been serving as a Eucharistic minister for 15 years. She does it not only during her work at Our Daily Bread but she also goes to Golden Oaks Village on Wednesday afternoons to take the sacrament to about seven people.
“This is just something that I have always wanted to do,’’ she said. “People in the nursing homes or who are homebound can’t get to church. You have to go to them. I just have become so close to these people. You see them every week, and you become friends. It’s a joy and blessing to be able to bring the sacrament to them.’’
Semrad hopes the ban at nursing homes and hospitals due to COVID-19 won’t last too long.
“I just try to call them and talk to them a bit,’’ she said of those she serves. “They can’t have any visitors, so I let them know I’m thinking about them and help their day a bit.’’
Semrad usually will spend 10 to 15 minutes per parishioner. She will have Bible readings and devotionals.
“Somebody needs to bring it to them,” she said. “Our priests are so busy that they always don’t have time to do this. It’s very rewarding.’’
Semrad already knew most of her parishioners, but some are new acquaintances. Like Patocka, she tries to be a friend first.
“It’s a very special thing,” she said. “I get more out of it than they get out of it. I’ve been with some of them almost to the day that they passed away. To have brought that final communion is very special. We had bonded. You kind of know where they are coming from, too. It’s really a privilege.
“It’s so very special to be there at the end, especially if they don’t have family. We have had this happen on several occasions where there was no family there at the end. A lot of these people don’t have too many visitors. It’s nice to be there once a week and cheer them up.”
‘I just pray for them’
Sharon Trojan of St. Gregory’s has been serving the Eucharist at local hospitals for a year. She said she was inspired by people like Ralph Evans, who has served for 37 years.
She will serve on Mondays anywhere from an hour to 2.5 hours, depending on how many Catholics there are at the time. She said patients need to tell officials they are Catholic because “the hospital has to know for us to get on the list.’’
She, like Patocka and Semrad, has been frustrated by the ban.
“It’s really hard, but you don’t have any choice,’’ Trojan said. “It’s been hard for everyone. We can’t have communion ourselves. You just want them to know that somebody cares for the person. You want to give comfort to other family members and friends to see they have support, too.’’
Trojan hasn’t been told when the services will resume.
“I’m afraid it’s going to get worse before it gets better,’’ she said.
Trojan’s faith is important to her — she has had a pyx (a small silver vessel used to hold consecrated Sacrament) that was blessed by the Pope during a visit to the Vatican — and being able to serve others has been more beneficial to her, she believes, than to the parishioners.
“I’m a very selfish person,’’ she said. “What I get out of it is very special. I know how important it was when we had family in the hospital when people came by. There’s a shortage of people to do this. I saw the need, and I’m glad I’m able to do it. I have a husband who is very supportive.’’
How long she spends with each parishioner will depend on the person. If he or she are in rehab, she tries to make it shorter, usually saying the Lord’s prayer or reading out of a booklet.
“I always pray for the person and the medical team taking care of them,’’ Trojan said. “It doesn’t take very long. You tell them you are thinking of them. Some ask if you could put them on the prayer list or call the priest for them. I always try to leave a bulletin for them because some people like to see what’s going on.’’
The hospital visits are different from nursing homes or shut-ins. She agrees to hospital ethical rules and to not telling other people who she specifically sees in the hospital.
She can only give the Eucharist to the patient, but she includes family members in prayer.
Trojan has dealt with people just out of intensive care who have faced death.
“I just pray for them at that point,’’ she said. “I’ve been with people who didn’t think they were going to make it. That makes it a special ministry.’’
Her biggest challenge is dealing with non-English speaking patients.
“We may not speak the same language, but when I make the sign of the cross, that’s pretty universal,’’ Trojan said.
‘Be fed and nourished’
Lay ministers at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church also take the sacraments of the Eucharist and Unction — laying on of hands with prayer and anointing with consecrated oil — at several area nursing homes.
The Rev. John Toles, pastor at St. Matthew’s, said in 2018 the ministry started as a way of carrying the spiritual support found in church to those who can’t come to church.
“I’ve always viewed the church as a place where people can come and be fed and nourished,” Toles said. “So, they can go out and to the ministries and that’s exactly what the people are doing and it’s exciting.”
Lay minister Michele Evans, who’s been with the ministry since 2017, said the nursing home visits are a way to support church members stuck at home or in the hospital.
“We had a ministry where we went to our shut-ins,” Evans said. “Just of the people from our congregation. That was kind of what St. Matthew’s was already doing.”
From that beginning, the lay Eucharistic visitation ministry expanded to nursing home residents outside the Episcopal denomination, first at Kenwood Manor, then Garland Road Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and The Living Center.
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“People in the nursing homes or who are homebound can’t get to church. You have to go to them. I just have become so close to these people. You see them every week, and you become friends. It’s a joy and blessing to be able to bring the sacrament to them." — Carolyn Semrad
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