In 1985, Bob McCardle temporarily checked into the skilled nursing unit at the Apartment Community of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Ill. Three days later, unsatisfied with the service, he fired the director of nursing and several other staff. 

As the new CEO, it was his responsibility to ensure that the employees performed to the standards expected in a Catholic retirement community. 

“The people who work here are expected to emulate Christ in the way that they treat residents and the way that they treat each other,” he said. 

It requires a commitment to the healing ministry of Christ, he added, and support of the facility’s belief system that extends beyond the doors of the buildings. This community is, after all, a ministry of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and is located at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. 

“When you drive over the grounds and into the retirement community, there is a sense that this is holy ground,” McCardle said. “This is the possible vision of what we can be to toward and with each other. It is a quest and a journey, and we go about it imperfectly every day, and, yes, we have cantankerous and mean older folks and employees who are belligerent, and sometimes things are missing that shouldn’t be. But the light burns brightly here, and it is the power of the Holy Spirit that will not allow the light to burn out.” 

There are 220 residents (65 percent Catholic) in three levels of a continuum of care: individual retirement living, St. Francis Assisted Living Center and Dammert Geriatric Center for skilled nursing care. The pastoral staff includes two priests and a Lutheran minister who work part-time, and a lay director of pastoral care. Daily Masses are celebrated in the chapel, and weekly Protestant services are held in a meditation chapel that features a three-story high mosaic of the risen Christ. 

“People come for the serenity here,” McCardle said. “There is no other place like ours that is part of a 240-acre park on a national shrine. There are devotional sites everywhere, and you can walk down wooded paths and find yourself in a half-mile Stations of the Cross. Our culture is supported by artifacts, like crucifixes and rosaries, and people going to and from prayer, and prayer before meals and before meetings. As one of my priest friends said, ritual and ceremony are ordinary things made holy. God is big here.” 

Not all retirement communities can offer what’s present in a Catholic setting, and those amenities, McCardle said, are ones that should be considered. 

“It’s really important to do a personal inventory and to do it not just with a spouse but with family, a close friend or even a priest,” he said about choosing a home. 

“Talk about who you are as a person, where you are in life’s journey and what’s really important. Do you want to be close to adult children and live in a hotel environment, or do you want to live in a community? Is daily Mass important? You have to have an honest inventory. This decision is critical and you will have it for the rest of your life.” 

St. Anne’s Retirement 

A new resident at St. Anne’s Retirement Community in Columbia, Pa., came to Dan Lytle, vice president of residential living, and said, “I guess I am here to die.” Three weeks later she told him, “No, I am here to live.” 

It was, she discovered, a time of her life to be savored. 

“We not only try to convey to our residents, but also to draw out of them, that this is one of the greatest times of grace from God, when people are trying to resolve issues in their lives and trying to anticipate the meaning of their lives,” said Ken Giovanelli, director of pastoral care. “They ask, ‘Where am I going?’ So we try to help the elderly connect with their lifelong relationship with God, in what can be the greatest time of grace for them.” 

St. Anne’s Retirement Community houses 250 residents (about half are Catholics) in cottages, villas, apartments, personal care rooms and health center beds. 

“We deeply treasure our Catholic sponsorship, identity and heritage, while serving our residents with high quality living accommodations, cares and services,” marketing director Christina George said. 

St. Anne’s had its beginning in 1925 when a group of Croatian/German nuns, members of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, left Illinois to establish a motherhouse on a 125-acre working farm in south central Pennsylvania. They soon became caretakers of two elderly men and, in 1928, welcomed 24 elderly residents in the first of six expansions. 

“We support the mission of St. Anne’s with our core values of reverence, respect, community excellence, just stewardship and spirituality,” Giovanelli said. “That is filtered to our residents and fellow employees as a way of living and bearing that mission and keeping it alive while we move into the future.” 

The mission is lived out in small, tangible ways, George said, like in the Act of Kindness program in which staff and residents fill out cards citing nice things that someone has done, and a Mission of Ethics contest. A binder of essays from 15 years ago linked the timeless spirit of the mission. 

“The heritage here is ongoing,” Lytle said. “We offer daily Mass, Rosary every morning and priests are on call. We have a very strong Catholic presence.” 

Alexian Brothers’ 

The philosophy of operations at the Alexian Brothers Senior Ministries’ three retirement communities in Wisconsin, Tennessee and Missouri is influenced by the order’s 800-year tradition and its five core values of compassion, care of the poor, dignity of the person, holism and partnership. 

“Through that, we are able to develop a very healthy culture for residents, their families and our employees,” said Pam Schlenvogt, marketing director for Alexian Village of Milwaukee. 

“It’s nice to be able to talk openly about religion, and residents don’t have to give up things like daily Mass that were a part of their lives before. All retirement communities offer good care and great amenities, but that’s what makes a Catholic retirement community different, having Christianity so much a part of it. We promote our religion as a selling point, but it’s also nondenominational.” 

Seniors who enter the facility’s Life Care Plan are assured of continuing care in all stages of their lives, from independent living, to assisted living and skilled nursing care. 

“People want independence and they want the security of knowing that the services will be there when they need them,” Schlenvogt said. “They want socialization, because many had been living alone at home and that can cause depression, and other health issues can arise from that.” 

The village communities are dedicated to the compassionate care of the 350 residents, with a focus on enriching lives, especially through holism — the healing of the mind, body and spirit. 

“We really hit hard on our core values,” Schlenvogt said. “We all live by the same traditions of the Alexian Brothers.” 

The apostolic order has its roots in the 12th century when a group of men and women tended the sick, fed the hungry and buried the dead at a time when the sick and the dead were shunned. They even stayed to tend to the stricken during the 13th-century plague that devastated Europe. The order is named after St. Alexius, who was born in fourth-century Rome and renounced his nobility to work among the poor. 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.