Sharing her life with those near death

Fitzgerald walks ‘sacred journey’ with hospice patients

NEENAH — Jane Fitzgerald starts her day with coffee and Christ. The morning hours are a time for her to do readings and her devotionals. “It centers me with God and reminds me to put God in the center of my life,” she said.

It also energizes her to share her faith and talents with many others through a variety of volunteer activities, including Theda Care Hospice. “This is my favorite,” she said. “I’m on my 26th patient. I love my Alzheimer’s patients. They tell great stories because they have great stories.”

Jane Fitzgerald (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)

Her oldest patient at this time is 102.

“I get back 10 times more than I give,” she added. The hospice organization says volunteers are at the heart of hospice and Fitzgerald agrees. “It is a very sacred journey that I walk with them. Often, they tell us things they won’t tell their doctor or nurse. You build up trust with them.”

She said families often don’t want to talk about death, but the patients do and Fitzgerald and other volunteers are there to listen and support. “You know, 100 percent of us are going to die. Eternal life is better than this one, I tell them,” she said.

Fitzgerald has added several volunteer hats since retiring from teaching in 2009. She served as a reading specialist at schools in Beaver Dam and Menasha. She also taught and supervised student teachers at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

When she retired, her husband, Dennis, had a serious health issue and nearly died. Faith, prayer and good medical care got them through it and they have now celebrated 44 years of marriage. “He’s a real blessing for me,” she said. Two daughters, Abbey and Mollie, and son-in-law Dennis complete their family. Fitzgerald also regularly visits her 90-year-old parents in Kiel.

She is starting her second year on the parish pastoral council at St. Margaret Mary, where she has been a member for 35 years. She is also a greeter at Masses, an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, serves at funeral luncheons and is an Adoration Chapel adorer. She is also working with others at her parish to get a care ministry started.

Her faith journey has taken her to nearby St. Gabriel Parish, where she participates in a weekly Bible study and a weekly prayer group called Ladies in Prayer (LIPS). The latter has become a support system as the participants discuss Gospel readings and books. “They are beautiful ladies. We pray for each other and for our petitions,” she said.

Fitzgerald also lends her support to the GriefShare program. The two Neenah parishes work together on this support group for people grieving the loss of loved ones. She started with the program five years ago when she lost her sister. Now, she continues to help arrange the meetings to help her friend, facilitator Mary Ellen Brown.

In her wider community, she participates in other book clubs and has been a community gardener for nine years. The latter is a collection of 93 gardeners who raise and share food with their neighbors. She said she has often shared her tasty products with the police officers in the station across from her home. It’s a good program, she said, which she calls a “very sacred journey.” It is one journey she is leaving behind for now as she concentrates her efforts in other directions.

Jane and Dennis are “surrogate grandparents” for two, she said. “This is because their grandparents live far away. We step in and go to events with them and spend time” with them, she said. “We call them the little blessings in our lives.”

Her newest adventure is spending time at the YMCA with the Silver Sneakers. “They are older like me,” she said. “They have the time and have good values. It is so nice. It is like another social club.”

“I think these groups — support groups — give me the ability to be bold and share my religion when the topic comes up,” said Fitzgerald. “As a Catholic, I want to be the light that reflects the face of Jesus in those I meet by a smile, a word of encouragement or a random act of kindness.”

Drawing on her favorite saint, Therese of Lisieux, who said, “Do small things with love,” Fitzgerald recites this little prayer every time she is aware of an accident or comes across an ambulance, fire truck or ThedaCare helicopter: “Little Flower at this hour use your power.”

“What matters most in this earthly life are relationships,” she added. “It is not great deeds, but great love that is the essence of a life worth living. St. Therese lived a very simple life with her heart full of love missing no opportunity of making a small sacrifice.”

Your Catholic Neighbor

Name: Jane Fitzgerald

Parish: St. Margaret Mary, Neenah

Age: 66

Favorite saint: Therese of Lisieux

Words to live by: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Ps 46:10)