Fall 2017 Newsletter
Essay Prize Winning Program Brings Vital Prenatal Care to Parishioners
Models Classroom Theory and On-the-Ground Praxis
In less than a minute, Fr. Augustine (“Gus”) Puleo realized he had a story to write. A notice posted at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary caught his attention. We were looking for seminary faculty and students to tell about a scientific discovery, advance, event, or issue that had an impact on their ministry.
Puleo, an adjunct professor of Pastoral Spanish at the seminary, is also the pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Norristown, Pennsylvania. The parish is vibrant, mostly Latino, with immigrant families from Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and other countries. There are three Masses each Sunday at St. Patrick’s; some are standing room only. As further evidence of its unusual vitality, Puleo documented 267 baptisms in 2014.
But 2014 was also the year he presided at the funerals of five infants, each less than a day old. “I was resolved,” Puleo said, “not to bury any more babies.” Startled to learn that the mortality rate in the United States in 2013 was six infant deaths per 1,000 live births, Puleo gasped, “I have almost that many in my parish alone!” He quickly learned that many of his pregnant parishioners were not receiving prenatal care that could have prevented many, maybe even all, of the infant deaths. He began studying medical research on pregnancy and infant mortality, becoming a quasi-expert on topics such as the importance of folic acid in pregnancy. The science on the matter was clear: these babies, and their families, needed better access to medical care, and a community effort was needed in order to ensure that they could get it.
Puleo and his team began exploring the idea of a community-based model of care, inspired by three programs: Partners in Health, which includes access to free primary health care and education in Haiti, Peru, Rwanda, and Lesotho; Creighton University’s Institute for Latin American Concern, where professionals train, manage, and provide supplies for activities in the Dominican Republic; and a program started by Dominican Sisters in Las Cruces, where they built a lab, pharmacy, and bakery. Once Puleo and his team knew what they wanted to accomplish, they went in search of local partners to provide services. “I reached out to find help,” he writes.
Help arrived. Physicians, nurses, and researchers brought information and on-the-ground assistance. With their support, a volunteer contingent of seminarians from St. Charles and elsewhere, and many local Spanish-speaking community volunteers willing to champion the program, Puleo launched a monthly health clinic to provide health education, screenings, and referrals, training community health educators (Promotores de la Salud) to help parishioners navigate obstacles to regular care such as language barriers and lack of health insurance.
The St. Patrick program also has distributed “baby boxes,” loaded with helpful supplies, to many new and expecting parents. This cardboard box serves an additional important purpose — it’s safe for a baby to sleep in for the first six months. This program is modeled after the “baby box initiative,” a program popular in Finland since its inception in 1937, which has been responsible for a dramatic reduction of the infant mortality rate there and in other countries that have adopted it.
In his exceptional essay submitted to us, Fr. Puleo explored both the science and the practical work of providing health care access to the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our faith community — a true exploration of one way that faith and science work together to bring life and health to the Body of Christ.