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‘Nursing the Sick, Caring for Christ’

By Nancy Rosebush Schertzing | Photography by Rey Del Rio | September 2021

‘Nursing the Sick, Caring for Christ’

Cynthia Starts Local Catholic Nurses Chapter

Nurses and health care workers: men and women who care for us, from our elderly in nursing homes, to our little ones too sick to be at home. Throughout the pandemic, they risked their health and safety while we sheltered. They stood at bedsides as we peered through windows at our loved ones. They held patients’ hands as they died, often holding the phone near their ear for last goodbyes.

That kind of service takes a toll.  

Cynthia DeLeon Thelen understands.

“I personally worked with nurses who committed suicide,” Cynthia explains. “When you are working in matters of life and death, you always want to be competent, to never miss a critical assessment. Fundamentally people go into this work because they really care and have a passion for helping others. If they didn’t care they wouldn’t do it. Looking back, I don’t know what resources those nurses had available to them to share their struggles.

“I grew up a cradle Catholic in a family that believed in Jesus’ teaching from Luke 12:48: ‘To whom much is given, much will be required.’ My mother used to say that to all seven of us kids, so we knew we were expected to use our talents to benefit others. I inherited my mother and grandmother’s affinity for nursing, so when I was in my early 30s, I decided to follow in my grandmother’s footsteps and earn a nursing degree while my children were very young.

“I have had the honor of working as a nurse in different hospitals and multiple roles in a nursing home. I taught nursing as a university professor, and now I regulate long-term care facilities for the state of Michigan. I understand the path nurses walk. The lens of the Catholic nurse at times feels like a narrow ray of light beaming in isolation. Yet, we speak the same internal and external language to support the dignity of each person across the stages of life.

“Sitting in adoration, I had a strong feeling there must be a way to marry my devout Catholicism with my nursing profession. I felt the presence of my nurse grandmother who used to tell us, ‘Pray without ceasing,’ so I began to pray, deeply asking God to show me the way.

“Later, in fall of 2019, I was attending a two-day conference on Catholic bioethics in Philadelphia when a speaker mentioned the National Association of Catholic Nurses. I had a complete stop – just halted. Then my next reaction was embarrassment. How could I not know there was such an organization? When I learned there was no open chapter in Michigan, I knew God was answering my prayers. I felt responsible to change this reality for Michigan. Fortunately, my husband, Frank, has supported my adventures throughout our 31 years of marriage.

“I have often said to our adult children, ‘Fail trying, but don’t fail to give 100 percent.’ I kept that in mind as I took my resume to the National Association of Catholic Nurses asking for support. After careful vetting and consideration, they agreed, and together we created a packet to present to the Diocese of Lansing.

“Bishop Boyea met with me on Ash Wednesday, 2020, and said that if I could get a priest to serve as spiritual director for the group, I could go forth with his blessing. He suggested Father Tim Nelson, former physician and former director of the Michigan Catholic Medical Association. In fact, within our diocese of over 85 parishes, spanning 10 counties, Father Tim is my pastor. His immediate response was: ‘I would love to be part of this project. The timing is providential!’

“In April of 2020, the Diocese of Lansing Council of Catholic Nurses was officially formed and endorsed by Bishop Boyea. God gave us all the tools we needed, so I was never intimidated by the long process. I formed a steering committee, and with fellow nurses began working on our mission, our purpose and goals, and our bylaw details. One of our best gifts was Father Tim. I tell you, if you want a person who pays attention to every punctuation mark and word, Father Tim is your man! He penned our council motto, ‘Nursing the Sick; Caring for Christ.’

“January 2021, we formalized our membership to encompass student nurses, practicing nurses and retired nurses and health care professionals. We collectively developed the structure of our monthly meetings to include eucharistic adoration, Mass, fellowship and spiritual direction. During nurses’ week in May, we conducted our inaugural Mass and launched our monthly gatherings the first Wednesday of each month at my parish, St. Mary Star of the Sea in Jackson.

“We welcome new members to reach out to us at Come as you are and leave your credentials at the door. We come together to pray, share our lived experiences in a confidential setting and explore our faith. Many appreciate this chance to share our many experiences of joys and challenges with others who understand ethical issues as Catholics.

“After our first gathering, a nurse, who drove 90 minutes to join us, told me, ‘I needed this. I just really needed this.’ Her response alone made the entire meeting a success.

“When you have faith, it’s the acknowledgement that you can build deeper, stronger, more lasting roots that help you weather challenges from different situations. Regardless of what God gives us, if we pour ourselves out, God gives us our strength back. When we come together our vessels never get empty because we fill each other up.”