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Rural Parish Workers look to the future

Catholic Charities will help pilot a clinic to bring health care to uninsured rural poor

With volunteer models such as Mimi Phelan walking the runway, the annual fashion show and luncheon to benefit the Rural Parish Workers of Christ the King celebrated the past and supported the present.

The event at The Ritz-Carlton on Oct. 13 celebrated 75 years for the ministry and 50 for the "Friends" of the group hosting the fashion show fundraiser to support the ongoing work of serving poor people in the Old Mines area in Washington County.

To this, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson added more cause for celebration.

Just before the fashion show commenced, Archbishop Carlson announced plans to bring health care and family social services through Catholic Charities of St. Louis to augment the rural ministry. A medical clinic, staffed by a doctor working with volunteers, will be piloted on Rural Parish Workers property in Old Mines, and hopefully set the stage for a Catholic mobile health clinic to also bring health care and social services to uninsured in and around nearby parishes.

"We have a strong, committed and passionate team in place" to make this vision a reality, Archbishop Carlson said, adding that the Rural Parish Workers are a perfect place to start. "They have relationships with so many people; they know who could volunteer in the mission and who could benefit from the service of the mission.

"We have confidence the work (of) the Rural Parish Workers ... will be enriched by these services."

Sister Marie Paul Lockerd, RSM, will be the medical doctor for the clinic.

"It'll be taking forward what they're doing already," said Sister Marie Paul, a Religious Sister of Mercy of Alma, Mich. With 18 years experience in rural health care, she arrived in the archdiocese in January just a couple of months before discussions began about adding to the rural poor ministry.

Plenty of work needs to be done before the clinic opens for business in about six months — business plans, licensing, regulations and so forth. That's in addition to the physical work of renovating a building for the clinic and stocking it with medical supplies, equipment and more.

Still, adding health-care services to the Rural Parish Workers' social services will be a game-changer for rural working poor.

"It's going to mean a lot for the people who don't have insurance," said Natalie Villmer, a professed member of the Rural Parish Workers of Christ the King.

The Rural Parish Workers, a group of lay women bound by religious vows, serve about 2,500 people a year, providing food, clothing, shelter and utility assistance. A secular institute of the archdiocese, the group started when Alice Widmer and LaDonna Hermann from St. Louis set up the ministry in Cottleville, then a country area but destined to be a suburb of St. Charles. In 1949, the Rural Parish Workers moved to Fertile, just seven miles northeast of Old Mines.

In 1967, they were joined by their "Friends," a group of St. Louis women who collaborated and used their assets to support the rural ministry in service to the poor.

"We just decided we needed to do something besides sitting around all day playing bridge," said Judy Shaw, among 11 originals still on the "Friends" committee. Young newlyweds and mothers in their 20s, they started simply enough with Christmas parties, at which one of their husbands played Santa and guests could purchase donated merchandise for Christmas gifts.

Proceeds were donated to the Rural Parish Workers, with the charity chosen because "some of the girls had been delivering food and clothes to them," Judy Shaw said.

Then, when the St. Louis Blues started playing hockey in 1967, The Arena Club became the venue for the first fashion show, because, well, the women liked fashion. Over the years, the women's children and grandchildren have walked the runway, and donors have given generously as the group helps fund the ministry.

"I give all the credit to the Lord," Judy Shaw said. "He wanted us to be successful, and we are."

Judy, her husband, granddaughters and son-in-law watched as her daughter Mimi Phelan walked the runway in three changes of clothes as 33 models dressed in fashion and accessories from West County Center and Chesterfield Mall.

For Mimi, this marked her second time as a model. The other was years ago as an eighth-grader, with "braces and a beret," she joked.

Nary a misstep was observed as the amateur models drew applause throughout the show, with their effort supporting the Rural Parish Workers in the present, celebrating the past, and — now — adding bold vision for the future. 

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