Seeking solace and communion through online prayer requests

November 15, 2018


Every month, hundreds of people — primarily from the Midwest — fill out the online prayer request form on the website of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, the founding congregation of Hospital Sisters Health System of Springfield, Ill.

Co-workers and visitors of Mercy Hospital St. Louis regularly stop the facility's chaplains in the halls and ask for prayers. Here, Mercy Hospital chaplain Sr. Janet Crane, SSND, right, prays with phlebotomists Anika Reese, left, and Shanelle Young. Co-workers also can request prayers through Mercy's employee intranet portal. Karen Elshout/© CHA

The sisters' website assures the petitioners that the congregation handles these online prayer requests "with great care and respect as we lift them up to the Lord."

The congregation prints out all prayer requests and posts those sheets on a bulletin board outside the chapel at their motherhouse, so the sisters can read them before they enter. During their rotation of perpetual adoration in the chapel, the sisters pray for the petitioners, and they keep them in their thoughts during their personal prayer time.

Sr. Christa Ann Struewing, OSF, is one of the 52 sisters who live at the Springfield motherhouse. She is among the sisters who pray for the online petitioners during Holy Hours. She says this prayer ministry is a way to "connect with persons throughout the world to bring the healing presence of Christ and so they know that someone is praying for them. We bring their hard situations to the Lord."

A member of the congregation of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis prays in the St. Clare of Assisi Adoration Chapel at the sisters' motherhouse in Springfield, Ill. Sisters keep in mind prayer requests — including those submitted online — when taking part in perpetual adoration at the chapel.
Courtesy of Hospital Sisters of St. Francis

That congregation is among the many ministry organizations that welcome prayer requests from anyone through the Internet, be they Catholic, from other Christian denominations, from other faiths — or from no faith tradition at all. Other organizations offering the service include Avera Health of Sioux Falls, S.D., and its two sponsoring congregations; Catholic Health System of Buffalo, N.Y.; SSM Health St. Anthony Hospital in Oklahoma City; and Providence Holy Family Hospital and Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, both of Spokane, Wash.

The Mercy system of Chesterfield, Mo., offers an email service linking people to its chaplains, and it hosts a virtual prayer room on its intranet for its employees' prayer requests.

Hopes of the heart
The online templates do not supplant more traditional ways of requesting prayerful intercession, including prayer request books and boxes in hospital and convent chapels.

Nate Hibner, CHA ethics director, says the act of praying for another person provides hope of an answer or intervention for the person being prayed for. That person also can know he or she is not alone and can take comfort in the fact that someone recognizes that person's needs and wants those needs to be addressed. The prayers are a way of connecting with God and exhibiting faith in His power to answer, Hibner says.

"They are the hopes from someone's heart for a person they love," Kay Gorka says of the prayer requests. She directs spiritual care for Providence St. Joseph's two Spokane medical centers. About 150 people a month submit prayer requests using those hospitals' online form. Prayer supports spiritual health, and spiritual health reduces suffering, adds Gorka.

Bill Vaughan, vice president of mission integration for Kenmore Mercy Hospital in Kenmore, N.Y., visits patient Otto Duggan. Vaughan prays face-to-face with patients who request it and he also prays for petitioners who ask for prayers through an Internet portal.

Sr. Joan Reichelt, PBVM, Avera senior vice president of culture, says that people who submit prayer requests through Avera's prayer portal "have great respect for the sisters, and for them it is comforting and reassuring — it gives them hope — to know we are praying for them."

Bill Vaughan, vice president of mission integration for Catholic Health System's Kenmore Mercy Hospital in Kenmore, N.Y., says of that organization's online prayer request service, "We look at this as part of living out our mission, and we love to do it and are humbled to do it."

Common prayer
Most commonly, people use the online forms on hospital, health system and founding congregations' websites to seek prayers for successful treatment, healing, recovery or a good death for themselves or loved ones, say people connected with the online prayer services. Many ask for intercession on behalf of a patient with a life-threatening disease or condition. Families ask for eternal peace for a deceased loved one and the grace to endure fresh grief.

Commonly now, people request prayers when they or a loved one are experiencing the pain of drug addiction, or are in mental health crisis, says Jay Gravholt, Avera director of media relations.

Online prayer request templates typically give people the choice to reveal as much information as they please. They may be submitted anonymously, or a petitioner can provide his or her contact information for follow-up. Hospital chaplains may reach out to a petitioner directly when circumstances warrant. For example, when a petition signals a behavioral health crisis, a hospital chaplain may make contact to offer resources and referrals to mental health providers.

Several hundred employees per month submit prayer requests through the Mercy system's intranet. It is common for nurses and other caregivers to seek prayers for the recovery of patients in their care, or in gratitude for a successful outcome, says Ken Potzman, who directs pastoral services for Mercy Hospital St. Louis.

"Prayer is built into the fabric of who we are," says Potzman. "It is an integral part of our ministry."

While health is the predominant topic for all these online services, people ask for prayers for the resolution of marital, job and family issues, and to be delivered from depression and anxiety, say Potzman and Gravholt.

Brian Blasco is director of communications for the Hospital Sisters congregation. He says petitioners express concern about the unsettled state of the world. "Because of the violence in our world, people are reaching out. They're praying to God for help. Amid the tensions of this world, there are prayers for peace," he says.

Avera's Gravholt says there is much to be grateful for too, and some prayer petitions express thankfulness and joy.

Right away
The five-hospital Catholic Health launched its request form about 10 months ago. Vaughan says incoming prayer requests are treated as sacred and are given priority. He receives the requests by email and forwards them as soon as he reviews them to the mission leaders and chaplains within the western New York system. They offer prayers during their huddles, meetings or during personal prayer time. When a hospitalized patient is named in a request, Vaughan calls the mission leader for the facility and immediately forwards the request to that leader and his or her spiritual care team. A team chaplain then calls on the patient.

During a department huddle, Mercy Hospital St. Louis' pastoral team prays for prayer requests — both handwritten and online petitions. Ken Potzman, pastoral services director, is at right. Karen Elshout/© CHA

At the Providence St. Joseph hospitals in Spokane, Gorka also gets an email with each incoming prayer request. She prints them out for distribution to hospital chaplains, who pray for the petitioners and their causes during Mass and at chaplain huddles. If a request is made for a visit, Gorka sends it directly to a chaplain who will see the patient.

Petitions made through websites of Avera and its sponsors, are offered up in prayer by the Benedictine Sisters of Yankton, S.D., the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Aberdeen, S.D., and health system chaplains.

At Mercy, chaplains pray daily for employees submitting prayers in a virtual prayer room on the system's intranet site. Each request is represented by a candle image on the site. Mercy's 44,000 associates can click on individual candles to view the associated prayer request — scrubbed of information identifying the petitioner — before sending up a supportive prayer for a colleague.

At SSM Health St. Anthony, more than a dozen lay staff members are part of a volunteer prayer team. It was formed about a decade ago when the hospital launched its online prayer request service. Sandra Payne, regional director of marketing and communications for the hospital, forwards the prayer requests to her fellow prayer team members who are on prayer duty on any particular day.

Two-way connection
Taking part in the prayer ministry is fulfilling for those offering the prayers, says Payne. She notes that many on the prayer team are not in clinical roles; praying makes them feel more a part of the healing work of the Catholic health ministry. "This is what we're called to do — to reveal God's healing presence, and we do this for the community," she says.

Vaughan of Catholic Health says studies have shown that the vast majority of people in the U.S. value spirituality highly as a part of the healing process.

The Hospital Sisters' Blasco says as the number of hospital sisters declines and the sisters enter advanced old age, many members of the order no longer can have a physical presence in their hospital ministries. "They can stay connected through prayer — they recognize they can be present in this way." That spiritual presence is meaningful to staff at the health system and community members as well, he notes.


Petitioners share their hopes, concerns through requests

A sampling of prayer requests received through online prayer portals:

  • "We pray and hope that God's will be done because we've been married 10 years and have not been able to have a baby." (Submitted to the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis)
  • "Sisters, please keep on praying for my dad (2 advanced cancers). Today we'll go in the hospital for his chemo round and he'll soon have a follow up CT." (Hospital Sisters)
  • "Dear Sisters, please pray for our country in these very challenging times." (Hospital Sisters)
  • "Pt. is in room ___. He is in need of encouragement and prayer. Thank you." (Providence St. Joseph Health's Spokane hospitals)
  • "He is 89 and has c diff. So far antibiotics have not been working, and he is very weak. He could really use healing prayers." (Catholic Health System)
  • "My friend is seeking guidance. Shy about asking for help." (Catholic Health System)
  • "Praying for my team lead in my department. Praying for peace for her and her daughters as she goes through a tough time." (Mercy's intranet prayer portal for staff)
  • "Peace regarding a family issue." (Mercy's intranet)
  • "For my aging parents. That they may remain healthy during this flu season." (Mercy's intranet)


Copyright © 2018 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2018 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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