By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

WEST CHESTER – Petra could be a poster child for the men, women and children who heavily rely on the Day Room and the Nurses Center at St. Agnes Parish, West Chester.

She and her husband have four children. The eldest, Ishmael, is in kindergarten. Maribel and David are toddlers, and Jose Antonio is an infant. The whole family lives in a bleak one-room basement apartment not far from the church. Neither Petra nor her husband can read or write in English or even in Spanish of their native Mexico. They are, in the words of director and cofounder Barbara Kirby, “clinging to the garment of the Church” for support.

“I come here because people here are very kind,” Petra said. “When my children are sick, the nurse helps them. They treat us kindly.”

Because her family’s living conditions are so bad, Petra brings her children to the Day Room whenever it is open. At first she would just sit with the other mothers, now she helps in little chores for the sense of dignity it gives.

The ministry traces back about 17 years when Msgr. Thomas P. Craven was pastor of St. Agnes. It continued and expanded under Msgr. Edward Deliman, and now Msgr. Nelson J. Perez.

The St. Agnes Day Room, which is open weekdays, provides numerous services to the poor who frequent it, including rudimentary health care through the assistance of volunteer nurses. They also distribute such things as formula and diapers and provide parenting classes and programs to assist newcomers to acculturate to American ways.

The Nurses Center, an outgrowth of the Day Room, provides more comprehensive treatment. At last count it was assisting about 700 people annually, many through multiple visits. It is open Wednesdays and Saturdays with volunteer nurse practitioners on duty.

Under the supervision and license of the volunteer medical director, Dr. Tony Manos, they can dispense prescription drugs which are kept in supply. This could include, for example, relatively expensive medication for diabetes or a heart condition that the patient requires on a steady basis. Patients in need of special services are referred to area physicians who will treat them on a pro-bono basis.

“It’s a privilege to do this,” said Dr. Manos, a St. Agnes parishioner and physician in private practice. The Nurses Center was a vision of Msgr. Craven and Maryanne Lieb, a nurse and faculty member at Villanova University, he explained.

“It provides care for those folks who otherwise would not have medical care at no cost at all. These folks are relieved to know that if they are sick there is somewhere they can go,” he said.

Other volunteers are involved too. Medical interpreters offer much-needed services because the Hispanic patient base has grown from 3 percent in 2000 to about 61 percent at this time. Many patients have very few English skills and are undocumented immigrants who are barred from accessing any medical assistance programs for the poor.

Knights of Columbus from St. Cornelius Parish, Chadds Ford, serve as volunteer security for the clinic. In fact, many neighboring parishes assist both through volunteers and donations.

The Nurses Program “is very effective,” Msgr. Perez said. “It serves a population which is very poor and has no insurance. It provides services as a ministry – and it is moving to see the dedication, the passion and the love as they do what they do.”

On this particular day Theresa Berkman, a nursing professor at Villanova University and Delaware County Community College, as well as a volunteer nurse coordinator, is on duty and checking Petra’s younger children who have had little problems.

“I answered an ad in the (St. Agnes) church bulletin about 11 years ago,” she said. “I came and it has become like a vocation. I feel lucky to be able to practice nursing in a holistic way, not just diagnosing and giving pills. This is looking at the emotional and social needs of the entire family.”

Because Petra speaks little English, Carolina Villafane serves as interpreter.

“I’m Hispanic myself and I know what it is like to be in this country and go through some of the struggles they are going through,” she said. “I do this because of who I am. It is part of me.”

Because Petra’s three youngest children were born in the United States they are entitled to government-funded programs even if their parents and older brother are not. But it’s not that simple. Even if an inspanidual is entitled to Medicaid insurance not every doctor or hospital will accept its payment.

And because of the language barrier, Petra and other mothers like her who may utilize public health services return to St. Agnes where the nurses and interpreters can explain what the doctors are recommending.

West Chester’s only hospital, Chester County Hospital, has just announced it has not renewed its contract with Keystone Mercy Health Plan, the area’s largest Medicaid managed care plan. This will affect the 2,800 members whose primary care physician works for the hospital and the additional 6,000 members who used the hospital or one of its physicians over the course of a year. The reason for non-renewal by the hospital is that the Medicaid-driven payment is substantially lower than the going commercial rate.

Technically, all hospitals must provide emergency services to all, and Chester County Hospital has an excellent record of caring for the needy, according to Dr. Manos.

But for other services, those with Keystone Mercy must now find another hospital and possibly another doctor. The next closest hospital that accepts the plan is 10 miles away, a substantial distance for persons without an automobile in an area with limited public transportation.

As Barbara Kirby notes, for an uninsured inspanidual or one whose insurance is not accepted, a simple visit to a doctor could result in a bill of over $100, and a visit to the hospital would be substantially higher.

“We are seeing ever-increasing numbers at St. Agnes; many are unemployed and we are one of the sole providers to the undocumented in this area,” she said.

In contrast to Planned Parenthood which is a block away, “everything we do here is for life, and it is important for the community to have this work for life here,” she said.

Donations to St. Agnes Nurses Center should be sent to 233 West Gay Street, West Chester, PA 19380.

For information concerning donating medical equipment or supplies or a medical professional wishing to donate services, contact

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.