Senior volunteers use skills to evangelize, serve others

Betty Kohles tends the cash register three mornings a week at the St. Vincent de Paul Society thrift store in Casa Grande, Ariz.

“That’s enough time for this old girl to be standing on her feet,” she said with a laugh.

Kohles, who will be 89 in July, has been volunteering at the store for 30 years.

She likes doing it, she said, because it gets her out of the house, keeps her brain active and she enjoys helping others.

“So many people come here in need and it makes you happy to take care of them,” she told OSV. “Like the mother with five little ones who came in the other day. Her husband just dumped her and they didn’t have any clothes, nothing. It breaks your heart.”

By their volunteering in such settings, Kohles and other senior Catholics are evangelizing and serving others, “especially the poorest, most marginal, the most hurting and the most defenseless,” as advocated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the Year of Faith.

Using gifts to help others

In that same spirit, members of the Quilters Group at Christ the King Church in Moline, Ill., make quilts and fleece blankets for a nursing home, a crisis pregnancy center, shelters and a Ronald McDonald House where families stay while their children are in the hospital. The quilters range from 65 to 88 years old.

“They are such positive women and they are always thinking of other people,” said Sharon Dodd, 75, coordinator of religious education who works with them on two annual projects. “Some have health problems, but their attitude is ‘OK, this is what’s been given to me in life, but let’s do for others.’ They are really living angels.”

Senior citizens play a crucial role in volunteering, and in many organizations they comprise the majority of those who step up to give of their time.

“They are loyal and very committed,” said Selma Sipes, who runs the thrift store affiliated with St. Anthony de Padua Parish in Casa Grande. “Without them, our organization probably wouldn’t be as well organized. They are very caring people who have a heart to help others. And they don’t just volunteer here. They go to other places to keep busy, to become socially involved and to give back. A lot of time, they say that God put them in these places for a reason, that they are here to help support the needy in the Christian spirit.”

St. Vincent de Paul Societies offer many services, including helping with utilities, diapers, household goods, furnishings, clothing and other assistance. At Casa Grande, the society also has an eye care clinic.

“We pray every day that God will keep helping us to help others,” Kohles said.

Helen McCormick, 83, joined the Quilters Group to “share what we are able to do” and to pass on life’s blessings.

“There’s satisfaction in staying active, and we’ve been told that the people who get the quilts enjoy them so much,” she said.

Arlene Murphy, 88, is the oldest in the group.

“Any time you do something to make someone’s day brighter, any time you work with other people to do good for someone else, it strengthens your belief in what you’re here for,” she said.

Murphy also belongs to a parish group that makes rosaries for missions, first communicants and other occasions.

“I can’t do much, but I can do something,” she said.

On foot for the Faith

Sue Athey believes that senior citizens bring an inviting presence to the door-to-door outreach in the boundaries of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“When you have older people coming to the door, people seem to be more open to listening,” she told Our Sunday Visitor.

Athey, 57, and Lyn Rooney, 61, proposed the ministry to their pastor, Father John Cousins, the day after he told parish council that they needed a way to reach baptized Catholics who aren’t practicing their faith. Or as the USCCB listed in their pastoral plan for the New Evangelization: to “re-engage those who are baptized but have lost a living sense of the Faith in their daily lives.”

“It was something that I had been thinking about for a while,” Rooney said.

The idea originated while she was studying for her master’s degree in biblical theology, and it was reinforced after she engaged in a discussion with Jehovah Witnesses who came to her door.

“They challenged me and we talked for about an hour,” she said. “At the end, one of them said, ‘This is really compelling. If this is really the church that Jesus Christ founded, why aren’t you out doing what we are doing?’ That was the spark, and I thought that now is the time.”

She and Athey recruited a core group of about 30 volunteers of all ages. They receive initial training and begin by accompanying experienced evangelists. Four or five teams go out once a month, except during extreme cold weather.

“One of our greatest fears was that we would get yelled at,” Rooney said. “But in the last two years, there’s only been one time when someone has been angry that we were there. Other than that, everyone has been very friendly, and for the most part, they’ve been kind of interested.”

The teams knock on doors and ask if there are any baptized Catholics in residence.

“Some say, ‘Yeah, but I no longer attend a Catholic church,’” Athey said. “We always try to be cordial and encourage that person to talk about what led them away. We listen and try to address them where they are.”

Marilyn Lisner, director of volunteer services at Good Shepherd Hospice

They also meet Christians of other denominations who have questions or misunderstandings about the Catholic Church, as well as people with no church affiliation. If anyone is interested, teams leave pamphlets from OSV and Catholic Answers, and CDs from Lighthouse Catholic Media and the Mary Foundation.

“We don’t have any way of knowing who comes back to church, or what happens to the Protestants who are curious,” Rooney said. “The real foundation to what we are doing is really obedience to Christ to go out and spread the Gospel. You step out of your comfort zone whether you feel like it or not, because you are being called by the Holy Spirit who wants this to happen.”

Seniors have become some of the most enthusiastic volunteers for door-to-door evangelization.

“At a certain age, they feel that they haven’t done anything to spread the word of Christ, and that if they don’t do it now, it’s never going to happen,” Athey said. 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.