SHIVERING from the cold wind rushing through the cemetery, grieving mother Lori O’Keefe tightened the shawl around her shoulders as she buried her son, missing martial arts expert Dan O’Keefe.
The discovery of Dan’s body beneath his parent’s Geelong home in 2016 ended a five-year search for the 24 year old, but also prompted a response from parish nurse Leonie Rastas.
The registered Geelong-based nurse and founder of a Victorian health promotion charity, Mrs Rastas requested members of her organisation knit special prayer shawls for the O’Keefe family.
“We got the most beautiful card saying ‘Thank you so much, the day we buried Daniel was freezing cold and we all wore our shawls at the cemetery’,” Mrs Rastas said.
The charity’s prayer shawls have comforted countless Australians, and highlight the importance of the spiritual dimension of nursing care.
Mrs Rastas believes the Catholic Church can spearhead this undervalued dimension through parish nurses.
In 2000 Mrs Rastas received special faith-based nursing training from the Australian Lutheran College in Adelaide through a course designed by US Lutheran pastor and Catholic nurse.
For the past 17 years, she has worked in parishes across Geelong and Melbourne offering a distinctly Catholic form of nursing care.
Many of Mrs Rastas’ clients have benefited from the reception of the sacraments and the opportunity to pray during house or hospital visits.
Mrs Rastas recalled visiting a young woman with four children who had an abortion after doctors discovered she had Lymphoma.
“The doctor gave her the weekend to decide whether to have the baby or chemotherapy, so she had the baby aborted and it was quite far down the pregnancy,” Mrs Rastas said.
“She’d never really forgiven herself, and she couldn’t go to the cemetery without crying.”
Mrs Rastas raised the idea of inviting a priest to her home to give the Sacrament of Penance.
The young woman agreed and she confessed having the abortion to a Catholic priest.
“And then from then on whenever she went to the cemetery she had peace,” Mrs Rastas said.
“It was just beautiful.”
In 2005 Mrs Rastas set up a charity, Pastoral Healthcare Network Australia and within it opened the Australian Parish Nurse Resource Centre to train and equip registered nurses to work in churches.
The centre offers resources for nurses looking to work in parishes and Christian churches, and most recently developed online courses.
It was opened and blessed by Archbishop Mark Coleridge while he was an auxiliary Bishop for Melbourne.
Archbishop Coleridge said at the time of the opening that parish nursing offered “a contemporary expression of Jesus’ healing mission for today’s church”.
In July, The Catholic Leader shared a story about parish nurse Sarah Dunlop, who is employed at the Jubilee parish on Brisbane’s west.
The story inspired Mrs Rastas to head to Brisbane with the hope of meeting Mrs Dunlop to develop a plan to train more nurses in their important line of work.
She will hold her first information session on an online course offered by the Australian Parish Nurse Resource Centre at the ACU Leadership Centre in Brisbane city on October 4.
“There’s a lot of research about faith-community nursing and parish nursing and the benefits to the community and to the individuals,” Mrs Rastas said.
“I would love to be able to share resources with them, share some of the programs that have worked for us, and to give them the material, the theory, around the practice.”
Mrs Rastas’ visit coincides with an opportunity to teach at the Australian Catholic University Banyo campus in their School of Nursing and Midwifery.
“I’ve got a cohort that’s multi-disciplinary, so I’ve got paramedics, midwives and then I’ve got law and business students,” Mrs Rastas said.
“I say to them, we all need something in our lives to transcend difficult times.
“There’s such a big push for mindfulness … and things like that, but that’s spirituality, we’re mind, body and spirit – if we ignore the spirit, it will show up in some other part of the body.
“And so, that’s where parish nursing is a great vehicle for teaching that and helping people care for their spiritual lives.”
To register for the October 4 information session visit the registration page.