By JULIE MINDA
For decades, Alexian Brothers were a reassuring presence throughout the hospitals and long-term care facilities they founded and sponsored. But, by the early 21st century there were too few brothers to keep up this ministerial practice.
Recent changes are allowing the congregation to again prioritize the direct ministry to patients, residents and staff.
A slight influx of new postulants in recent years, a change in sponsorship at its health facilities that reduced some of the administrative burdens and a determination to devote time and energy to people in need have given the motivation and the means for the brothers to do this.
Br. Tom Klein, CFA, of the Alexian Brothers' Immaculate Conception Province, prays with Polly Lopez in her apartment at Alexian Village of Tennessee in Signal Mountain.
Br. Tom Klein, CFA, relishes his interactions with residents and staff at Alexian Village of Tennessee in Signal Mountain, a continuum of care provider near Chattanooga, Tenn. He is one of several Alexian Brothers maintaining a "brothers' presence" at legacy Alexian Brothers facilities. He says the best part of the role is "being able to freely love as Jesus loved and to be a part of the lives" of people in the Alexian Village community.
The Immaculate Conception Province of the Alexian Brothers of Arlington Heights, Ill., experienced growth in its ranks in the mid-1900s and then saw a decline in the ensuing decades. Br. Daniel McCormick, provincial of the Immaculate Conception Province, says at the peak of its membership, when the congregation had nearly 180 brothers, it was not uncommon to have 50 or 60 brothers assigned to its largest hospital.
By 2014, there were 22 brothers in active ministry worldwide. Today there are 27 brothers in active ministry, including those in the U.S. and in ministries in Hungary and the Philippines. While that is still a small cadre, in recent years the congregation has taken steps to recalibrate the brothers' focus, putting a greater emphasis on reaching out to the poor, the sick and the dying.
Their direct presence in the health ministries speaks to this. "It feeds our hearts to touch people's lives," he says.
Br. McCormick says the brothers' return to their central purpose to care for others "has been about getting back to the simple relationship with God, with each other and with our patients and residents." The change is subtle, but powerful, he says.
As part of the revitalization, the brothers are working to attract new vocations, in part by tweaking their public image to demonstrate "who we are as religious and what God is calling us to do," says Br. McCormick.
Online and in a new vocations campaign, Br. McCormick says the public face of the province is no longer a staid, pious image of a brother holding a rosary, but instead is of joyful men living in community with others. For instance, the congregation's Facebook page has photos and videos of the brothers on mission trips, celebrating birthdays with one another and visiting residents and patients in Alexian Brothers facilities. The congregation also has revamped its website, keeping it fresh with content about what it means to be a brother and live out the mission, Br. McCormick says.
The province is participating in online vocation sites where people interested in religious life fill out personality questionnaires and receive in return a list of congregations that may be a good match. As one of the few congregations of men that accept postulants over age 55, the Alexian Brothers are an automatic potential match for men over that age.
These efforts have increased awareness of the province among people seeking to deepen their relationship with Jesus through religious life, says Br. McCormick. "Across the board, these men are looking for a closer relationship with God and the chance to make a difference," and they are finding kindred spirits in the brothers. The province has had postulant classes of two or three men per year since about 2012, a significant increase from prior years.
As the revitalization of the congregation was underway beginning in about 2010, the province also was driving a change in its relationship with the ministries it founded and sponsored. In 2012, Alexian Brothers Health System became part of St. Louis-based Ascension; Ascension's public juridic person assumed sponsorship of its health ministries.
Br. Torch Acosta, CFA, at left, encourages Timothy Reinhart, as Reinhart applies online for job openings. Reinhart is a client of the Alexian Brothers Center for Mental Health in Arlington Heights, Ill., one of the facilities Br. Acosta routinely visits.
In 2015, Alexian Brothers Health System formed a joint operating company called AMITA Health with Adventist Midwest Health. The acute care facilities of Alexian Brothers Health System operate as part of AMITA. The eldercare sites are part of Ascension's long-term care division, Ascension Living.
Today the Alexian Brothers have 13 main legacy facilities in Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin and Tennessee, including two medical centers, a women's hospital, two mental health hospitals, a rehab hospital and seven long-term care facilities. The sponsorship change for these sites has enabled many of the brothers to step back from administrative roles they held at the ministries, and into the more interpersonal roles with staff, patients and residents, says Br. Klein, who became a brother nearly a decade ago.
All of the Alexian Brothers are refocusing themselves on their central purpose as brothers and are trying to extend their presence of loving care to all Alexian Brothers facilities. The several men maintaining the brothers' presence as an assigned, full-time role have completed clinical pastoral education that included training in providing pastoral care to vulnerable people. The men's presence complements, but does not supplant, the work of facility chaplains.
Br. Torch Acosta, CFA, who became a novice in 2015, makes regular pastoral visits to seven Chicago-area facilities that provide acute care, mental health, hospice, critical care, rehabilitation and transitional care. One of the facilities he visits is a behavioral health hospital.
He spends time with patients, inviting them to share their thoughts and difficulties and to pray with him. He talks to nurses and doctors about what's concerning patients, and he provides a compassionate presence to staff. He says he tries to do everything "out of love, as Jesus did."
People recognize genuine caring. "It lights up their day," he says. The work makes him feel like a "difference maker."
In Southern Tennessee, Br. Klein — who both lives and serves on the Signal Mountain campus — provides an attentive ear and reassuring hugs to patients, family members and staff at Alexian Brothers' legacy long-term care sites. "There's a lot of interaction — it's about listening, caring and loving," he says.
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