Sisters from Africa, India relieve CNA shortage in Iowa community

February 1, 2013

Paychecks help fund aid programs back home


Sr. Mary Melania J. Masera, OSS, was surprised when her congregation in Tanzania asked her to serve as a missionary in Carroll, Iowa. She'd never left Tanzania, she'd never been on an airplane before, she barely understood English and she knew nothing about the U.S. culture.

But, Sr. Masera rose to the occasion by recalling how the Blessed Virgin responded to God's call. She thought, "It is my turn to say that I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done."

She is one of 11 Holy Spirit Sisters — five of them from Africa, and six from India — who are working as certified nursing assistants at St. Anthony Nursing Home in Carroll. Through the 12-year-old "Missionaries to Iowa" program, the foreign sisters rotate into CNA positions to relieve a CNA shortage at the 79-bed long-term care facility. They send a generous share of their paychecks to their congregations back home. Two dozen sisters have rotated through the program since it began.

It's a mutually beneficial relationship that addresses staffing challenges faced by St. Anthony and economic challenges faced by the sisters' home communities, said Ed Smith, president and chief executive of St. Anthony Regional Hospital and Nursing Home.

Stream of funds
According to the website, CNAs make a median annual salary of about $22,500. St. Anthony CNAs make more than this, with salaries competitive with what other Iowa facilities pay, according to a spokesperson. The sisters are paid on the same compensation model as the other CNAs at St. Anthony for their 40-hour workweek. In Carroll, the sisters reside in a convent near the nursing home. Deon Rowedder, St. Anthony director of nursing, said many of the sisters use about half their earnings for their own expenses and send the remainder to their congregations.

In Africa, the Holy Spirit congregation has used the sisters' funds to help build a school, to educate and feed poor children and to educate and provide health care to Tanzanian sisters. In India, the congregation has used the funds to educate schoolchildren and to build homes for the homeless. Both the African and Indian sisters use some of the funds for other mission work around the world.

The sisters' home communities also benefit from the skills the missionaries receive in the U.S. Some of the sisters who have returned to Kerala, India, now work in nursing homes near their convent. Some of the sisters who have returned to Africa now work at a health care clinic in Sanya Juu, Tanzania. There is no long-term care facility near the African sisters' convent in Rauya, Tanzania — most elderly people who require care, get it from family members at home. But some elders do not have home caregivers, or they receive inadequate care at home. St. Anthony Nursing Home Director Sherry Greteman has visited Rauya and is advising the congregation on how to establish a nursing home to fill the care gaps. Greteman, the sisters and the priest who founded the Missionaries to Iowa program are raising funds in the U.S. for the Tanzanian facility. They expect it will take several years before construction begins.

Sr. Eleonora Francis Shirima, OSS, of Tanzania, plans to draw on her experience at St. Anthony to teach staff how to safely care for frail elderly people at Rauya's first nursing home and to advise administrators on supplies.

Win, win
Missionaries to Iowa traces its beginnings to a chance conversation about CNA shortages at St. Anthony between Fr. Jim McCormick, who was a pastor at Carroll's Holy Spirit Parish, and a former parishioner who worked as a CNA at the nursing home. Fr. McCormick worked as a missionary in Africa and India, and he thought Holy Spirit sisters in those countries could be trained to become CNAs at St. Anthony, earning money to benefit their congregations. (Although the parish and the congregation share the Holy Spirit name, there is no formal sponsorship connection between the church and the congregation. Fr. McCormick knew members of the congregation from his mission trips.)

During subsequent mission trips to Africa and India, Fr. McCormick presented his proposal to the Holy Spirit sisters, and they agreed to it. Congregational leaders in Africa and India dispatch sisters to work for at least three years in Carroll — though many have served much longer. According to the sisters, their congregations are able to send members to Carroll without hardship because they continue to attract new members and are growing.

A few of the sisters had some background in health care prior to coming to St. Anthony, but most had none. At the nursing home's expense, all of the Holy Spirit sisters took classes at Des Moines Area Community College in Carroll to prepare for the Iowa nurses' aide certification test. Some of the women arrive with little or no English proficiency, and they study English as a second language at the community college as they are completing their other studies, or they get language help from colleagues and the other sisters.

Once they've completed an orientation and the CNA course, the sisters begin their CNA duties, assisting residents with the activities of daily living, including bathing, grooming, dressing and eating.

The sisters provide spiritual care to patients too. They transport wheelchair-bound residents to the nursing home's Mass. They pray and read the Bible with residents. And many of them comfort the dying as part of St. Anthony's "No One Dies Alone" program.

Rowedder said, "Especially considering the cultural differences and the obstacles they face, the sisters are doing a fantastic job here. Our residents love them, and we are blessed to have them here."

Acclimation period
The sisters had to adapt to American informality, weather extremes and dietary differences. Sr. Jovitha Mtenga, OSS, said she found it strange to address patients and administrators by their given names — that is uncommon in her native Tanzania — and to see women wearing slacks. Sr. Anila Edakkamcheril, OSS, of Cochin, India, who learned the Queen's English, found it hard to understand the Midwestern accent and slang.

Sr. Consesa Protas Moshi, OSS, is a native of Tanzania, where temperatures rarely drop below about 50 degrees. She recalls her shock at the "terrific cold" and 14 inches of snow that awaited her upon her arrival at the Minneapolis airport.

Some sisters initially thought they had to order one item from each menu section in restaurants. Some were overwhelmed by portion sizes in America. Accustomed to eating fresh food in their homelands, the sisters planted a vegetable garden near the St. Anthony campus, and they preserve produce for the winter.

Welcoming community
The sisters said St. Anthony's staff, the Holy Spirit Parish and other Carroll community members have helped them learn English, tutored them in their courses and provided furniture and home supplies for the sparsely furnished convent.

Many of the sisters have formed friendships with the residents, staff and people in the community, they said. Visitors frequently come to the convent — often with food in hand — or invite the sisters to their homes. They ask the sisters to Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas celebrations and graduations.

"It is a very good Catholic community, and St. Anthony people are very helpful and loving," said Sr. Edakkamcheril.


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.