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Religious Life

She brings hospice to Latino community


Hospice chaplain Norma Gutierrez calls herself “the good news” person. “I’m here to remind dying people that they are loved,” she said. “No matter what they have or haven’t done, God loves them. No matter their faith, a Higher Being has a plan for them.” Gutierrez, who works for Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque, N.M., is a sister in the congregation of the Missionary Catechists of Divine Providence.

For someone who is ready to pass on but for some reason is holding on, Gutierrez’s words can have liberating power.

She often tells the story of a woman who lingered for days, seemingly unable to die. Gutierrez asked her if she had any unfinished business that might be holding her back. The 88-year-old woman responded, saying she had something she wanted to confess: During the Depression, when she was 16 years old, a man came to the door and asked for food. The girl was supposed to make a meal that day out of the few items her family had in the house. She turned the man away.

“That had haunted her. … She never forgave herself,” said Gutierrez. “I told her, ‘But look at all the people that you have fed in your life!’ ” Indeed, the woman was beloved for her hospitality; through the years something was always bubbling on the stove for parishioners, priests and others who happened by. Gutierrez reminded her that as a 16-year-old girl in an impossible situation, she had made the best decision she could. Two-and-a-half hours later, the woman passed away peacefully.

“I could tell you hundreds of stories like that,” Gutierrez said, her face glowing.

Since moving to Albuquerque from San Antonio in July, she has made it a priority to spread the “good news” about hospice care.

Many Latinos, said Gutierrez, don’t know that hospice care provides whatever is needed so that people can die at home among loved ones, keeping alive ancient values about the importance of family involvement at the end of life.

“Yesterday, I visited this man. He had his mariachi music on. He could barely breathe, but he was happy,” she said. “I tell people, ‘You don’t have to eat hospital food. You can eat your frijoles at home.’ ”

Gutierrez explained that thanks to Presbyterian Hospital’s donor program, no one, including undocumented workers, is turned away for financial reasons.

Gutierrez also wants to reach out to Latinos who are interested in joining the ranks of hospital and hospice chaplains. The church, she said, must provide sufficient scholarship funds for programs that lead to certification.

Gutierrez now has a national forum for tackling this and other issues -- such as getting more Spanish translators into hospitals -- thanks to her recent appointment as chair of the prestigious committee on standards of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains. She estimates that about 80 percent of Presbyterian Hospice’s clients are Catholic.

Gutierrez, 46, was born in Mercedes, Texas. Her father packed up his 12 children in their truck to follow the crops as migrant workers -- but during summer vacations only. Education meant everything to her parents. “For Christmas they bought us an encyclopedia,” Gutierrez recalled. “If we complained about being bored, they told us to pick a topic and write about it. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized they couldn’t read what we wrote.”

Gutierrez eventually enrolled at Pan American University in Edinburgh, Texas, where she pursued a major in special education. She planned to work with autistic children.

But then in October 1975, Mother Teresa came to San Antonio. A priest and nun from campus ministry invited the 21-year-old Gutierrez to hear her speak.

“Mother Teresa said, ‘Some of you out there may be thinking of being missionaries,’ ” recalled Gutierrez. “ ‘But look in your own backyard. That’s where missionary land is.’ ” Gutierrez left the event with new eyes. Viewing the landscape of possible vocations, she was led, finally, to the Missionary Catechists of Divine Providence. Based in San Antonio, the order was formed in 1936 to serve Hispanics.

Gutierrez, who entered the order in 1976, plunged into youth ministry. Her 20-year involvement included work in California, Texas, Maryland, and finally at the National Office of Youth Ministry in Washington, D.C.

But Gutierrez grew disillusioned. Among other things, the youth she served often could not afford to go to the church’s youth congresses. Church higher-ups talked about the importance of Hispanic outreach, she said, but sufficient funds were rarely forthcoming. She decided to take a year’s sabbatical. “I was angry,” said Gutierrez, “and I didn’t want to get bitter.”

She went to Berakah Retreat Center in Pittsfield, N.H. The year-long program was “woman-centered, about claiming your authority,” Gutierrez said. She prayed, took up painting, and left with a new vision for herself. She decided to seek certification to be a hospital chaplain.

Her jobs included five years as chaplain at Herman Hospital in Houston. “I became a trauma junkie,” she said. “Gunshot wounds, drownings, car accidents … talk about learning -- quickly -- how to be present to people,” said Gutierrez. She also went out of her way to be there for nurses’ aides and other support staff. “If they see how special and blessed they are,” she said, “they’ll treat patients the same way.”

Gutierrez, “the good news person,” said hospice work has blessed her in ways she hoped for long ago when she considered a vocation. “I knew I could be happy single, married with children, or as a single mom. I chose this, to be a sister.”

Demetria Martinez is a poet and author. She writes from Albuquerque, N.M.

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003