Norristown parish offers one-stop health assistance

This article appears in the The Field Hospital feature series. View the full series.

Fr. Gus Puleo is pastor of St. Patrick Church in Norristown, Pa., a place that was once largely Irish. It is now mostly Mexican, with groups of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Colombians added to the Latino mix.

In terms of numbers, the parish outside Philadelphia is thriving, with some weekend Masses in Spanish overflowing out the doors. In 2014, Puleo performed 267 infant baptisms, an indication that new Catholic life in Norristown is abundant.

That same year, he presided over five funerals for infants who had barely lived a day, a stark reminder that new life among Norristown's Latino immigrants is a struggle.

"It was too many. I had to do something," he said, noting that the percentage of funerals for newborns was way above that experienced by those born in wealthier communities. He discovered that the infant mortality rate among the babies in his parish was nearly twice the national average. "I didn't want to bury more kids."

So Puleo, who before being ordained was a Spanish professor at Columbia University in New York and is an adjunct professor in Spanish at St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia, got involved in health.

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He consulted with medical experts and talked to his contacts at St. Joseph's University, a Jesuit institution in Philadelphia. The result: After the noon Mass on the first Sunday of the month, the parish hall is transformed into a one-stop shopping area to deal with health concerns of a largely immigrant population without access to health insurance.

One focus is on providing expectant mothers with folic acid and other nutritional supplements to assist in healthy deliveries. A female volunteer counsels the mothers-to-be on how to best care for expectant life.

The program, which began in October 2014, got noticed by the Templeton Foundation, which provides awards for seminary scholars who promote science. Puleo submitted an essay he wrote about his experience and was awarded $500, a sum that will go to the health needs of the parish.

While the program began with a focus on pregnant women, it has expanded. Booths offer diabetes and blood pressure testing for all. A dentist and eye testing has been added as well. A representative from the Mexican Consulate in Philadelphia is also present to answer immigration concerns. All is offered free of charge.

"We are trying to capture their needs in one place," said Puleo, who likes to refer to St. Patrick as an old-fashioned immigrant parish in the 21st century. He was inspired by Padre Pio, the Italian mystic and healer, who established a hospital to care for those who came to him with illness.

"These are all immigrants who don't have health care [non-citizens are not covered by the Affordable Care Act]. We are trying to help them survive," he said, noting that their children, born in the U.S. are citizens and have more access to care.

The program also trains health promoters among parishioners who provide basic health education. It is a concept borrowed from development programs in Latin America.

Parishioners are encouraged, said Puleo, "to take ownership of what's happening and then do something about it. It's a Third World model in a First World country."

[Peter Feuerherd is a correspondent for NCR's Field Hospital series on parish life and a professor of journalism at St. John's University, New York.]

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