Cultivating Hope in Mental Health Ministry

May 25, 2017

By Maureen Falcon, communications manager, West Midwest Community

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. Sister Marie Micheletto has ministered in the mental health arena for most of her 60 years as a Sister of Mercy.

Sister Marie Micheletto

Sister Marie Micheletto

When reading the resume of Sister Marie Micheletto, you see degrees from College of Saint Mary and the University of Northern Colorado and a graduate certificate in gerontology from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. You see that she is a graduate of a family therapy training program at the Menninger School of Psychiatry and Health Sciences. It’s true that she is also a National Certified Professional Counselor and a member of several associations. These are all important and earned recognitions, but Sister Marie is so much more.

A Teacher at the Start

When women entered the Sisters of Mercy 60 years ago, they were typically assigned to become either a nurse or a teacher. Sister Marie wanted to be a nurse but was sent to become a teacher. This decision began a journey filled with joy, growth and hope.

At her first teaching assignment in California, she found that while she did enjoy teaching, the students had a lot of needs she couldn’t meet. Many of the girls lived at the school. Sister Marie found that she did a lot of listening, trying to help them handle the circumstances of their lives. These students found more than a teacher in Sister Marie; they found a mentor. Sister Marie found her passion.

A New Ministry Begins

After teaching at several schools, Sister Marie was asked to go into administration. Knowing this wasn’t where her heart was, she asked if she could go back to school to become a counselor. She went on to earn her master’s degree in counseling from the University of Northern Colorado in 1969.

Over the next nearly 50 years, Sister Marie used her gifts and education as a counselor in many unique ways. Her belief that anything is possible, combined with the ability to recognize unmet needs and an optimistic attitude, led her to create many innovative programs which continue to benefit the mental health of those involved.

The stories are compelling, and the impact Sister Marie has made is undeniable.

Mental Health Ministries

Dying patients who have no family are comforted by volunteers through the No One Dies Alone program that Sister Marie implemented at Bergan Mercy Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska, and a number of affiliates. “Ultimately everyone dies by themselves. It’s just that most of us want to know that somebody is there with us,” said Sister Marie.

Parents who face the grief of having a child die in-utero or shortly after birth can benefit from a perinatal hospice program that was also started by Sister Marie. In her years as a counselor, she has seen what often happens without help in situations like this. Parents can be suffering from so much individual grief, that they can’t help each other through the pain. Families come from up to 150 miles away to be a part of this program at Bergan Mercy Hospital. If there are other siblings, parents want those children to know their brother or sister, even if only for a short while. This program makes that possible.

Three days a week, Sister Marie sees patients in her private office. She takes no insurance and only charges what people can afford to pay. Years ago, a patient offered to buy her a bag of potatoes for her services. Sister Marie said she only eats a couple of potatoes a month, so that patient continues to pay with two potatoes! To some of the older Catholic women she sees, Sister Marie says, “For you, it’s a little different. Say a rosary for me, once a week. And don’t skip it!”

Cultivating Hope

It is in her private counseling office that she worries the most. She sees the needs of her patients and doesn’t believe that our healthcare system is doing all it can to provide for them. There aren’t enough psychiatrists, and the waiting time is too long to see the few there are. Sister Marie is persistent in finding her patients the help they need, but that is becoming more difficult with each year that passes. Her greatest hope is for increased access to help for those patients with mental health issues.

“I wish that somebody would say, ‘You know what? We have such a great need here. It’s about access and cost. You know, I’m going to find the doctors who would be willing to practice here, and I will build the building and keep it going for five years until they can keep it going,’” said Sister Marie.

Always the optimist, Sister Marie believes that this is the year to cultivate hope that mental health care will receive the attention it needs. “I’ve been praying about this for six months now. I think gratitude fuels hope. When you become very grateful for all the little things in life, and all the big things in life, you have more hope.” Mary Luke Tobin, S.L., says it well, “Daily collect evidence of hope.”

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