Communion minister retires after 35 years

By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor

Mary Zena considers it a privilege to serve as a eucharistic minister. (Record Photo by Marnie McAllister)
Mary Zena considers it a privilege to serve as a eucharistic minister. (Record Photo by Marnie McAllister)

After 35 years of driving into downtown Louisville to administer Communion to the sick at Jewish Hospital, Mary Zena has decided it’s time to retire. She turned 90 on July 8 and says her memory isn’t what it used to be.

She was one of six people — three men and three women — who initiated eucharistic ministry at Jewish Hospital in 1978 at the request of Archbishop Thomas J. McDonough. She is the last to retire.

Her late husband, Henry Zena, was also one of those first half dozen extraordinary ministers of holy Communion. The others were John Weiss, Jim Seadler, Velma McKim and Catherine Eastham, said Mary Zena.

During a recent interview at her home in Audubon Park, Zena — who is the sister of the late Bishop Charles Maloney and the late Father Joe Maloney of Boys’ and Girls’ Haven — described her more than three decades of ministry as a privilege.

“I thought it was a privilege to be able to take the Body of Christ, particularly, to someone who is sick,” she said. “Think about it. It is such a privilege and you meet nice people. I thought it was very gratifying.

“It was a lot busier then than it is now,” she said of the numbers of those patients who identify themselves as Catholic. “There were loads of Catholic patients” in the beginning.

She and her husband split their duties at Jewish Hospital during their weekly visits.

“Henry would do his half of the hospital and I wouldn’t be finished,” she said, noting that she always enjoyed chatting with the patients.

When her husband was ill, she took a couple of months off. After he died, she continued to serve on her own.

Her ministry, and that of others like her, is a powerful one, said Father Bryan Lamberson, chaplain for KentuckyOne Health at Jewish, Sts. Mary and Elizabeth Hospital and Frazier Rehab.

“She has made this connection to people who, in the moments of crisis and trial, she has reconnected them to the touchstone of their life, which is their faith, by bringing the Eucharist to their hospital bed,” he noted.

He said a celebration to honor Zena’s service is planned for July 31. And he has begun to look for extraordinary ministers of holy Communion to help fill her shoes.

Communion ministers spend about two hours at the hospital once a week. They receive a parking pass for the garage in downtown Louisville and don’t have to walk outside the garage to gain access to the hospital, he said.

He sees this service as a way for people to engage in the new evangelization.

“People, I think, wonder how the new evangelization applies to them personally,” he said. “We’re not called to wear hairshirts, eat locusts and wild honey as John the Baptist. But we are called to share our friend Jesus and his message of love and hope with others.

“Serving as a Communion minister to the sick is, I think, a perfect way for folks to concretize the notion of evangelization into reality,” he said. “It’s a chance to regularly have that ‘Emmaus moment,’ encountering and recognizing our Lord in the breaking of the bread.”

Those who might follow in Zena’s footsteps may like to take a tip from her, too.

“I would always say ‘Do you feel like receiving communion?’ rather than, ‘Do you want to,’ so (if a patient wasn’t up to it) they wouldn’t have to say, ‘No, I don’t want to.’ ”

To volunteer, call Father Lamberson at 361-6733.

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