success stories

Posted January 4, 2004

Aided by church volunteers,
Peregrine Society assists cancer patients

By Joseph Kenny
Catholic News Service

It was a gift like no other -- their first family vacation since their son was diagnosed with leukemia.

"Our lives have been touched forever by your generosity," the family of four wrote to the St. Louis Peregrine Society.

Not only did family members have a wonderful weekend in Branson, Mo., at the society's expense, but they also had an added bonus of being with other families with children being treated for cancer, an experience they called "uplifting, special and very memorable."

Sponsoring the yearly bus trip to Branson is just one of the many activities of the Peregrine Society, a busy yet low-key charity named after the patron saint of cancer patients.

The society offers critical support, such as nutritional supplements, prescription medication, transportation for radiation and chemotherapy treatments, medical and colostomy supplies, equipment and prostheses, free to patients who otherwise cannot afford or have no insurance coverage for costs associated with their illness.

About 90 percent of Peregrine Society volunteers are from women's groups of various churches. Some 3,000 patients are served a year. The biggest program is the nutritional supplements, serving 300-400 a month.

The organization was founded in 1949 as the St. Louis Cancer Society and had to change its name after an objection from the American Cancer Society.

Fred Wessels, a member of St. Stephen Protomartyr Parish in South St. Louis and executive director of the society, said the new name was a good fit because it honored the saint and because it allowed the society to be anonymous when delivering supplies to people's homes. Unlike today, he noted, having cancer then was looked upon as a type of stigma.

St. Peregrine was an Italian who lived more than 700 years ago. A Servite brother, he undertook an apostolate to the sick, poor and fringe people of society. After being diagnosed with cancer in his leg, he prayed intensely the night before scheduled surgery to amputate it. The next morning his cancer was healed.

It is gratifying to work with the patients, Wessels said. By the time they are referred to the society, they have been diagnosed, hospitalized and begun treatment.

"When they ask what our services will cost and we say it's free, some people actually break down and cry," Wessels noted. "It's very satisfying to work for an organization like this."

He also is grateful for the volunteers. They come from 11 Catholic parishes as well as Lutheran, United Church of Christ, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian and other churches.

"There are so many women who are generous with their time and talent as well as their treasure," Wessels said. "I see them donating their time and energy year after year. We have some volunteers who have been at it 30, 40, even 50 years."

Before Christmas, the volunteers were busy knitting robes, bed socks and other items given out as gifts to 125 of the neediest families.

At other times the church groups make cancer dressings, much as they have since the organization started. Sometimes the groups will sponsor fund-raisers. Volunteers also assist in a variety of other activities, including transporting patients to and from treatment and helping with office functions.

Private donations fund the society. About the only time a grant is sought is when a new van is needed.

"Many of our revenues come from bequests. We have a fund-raising drive once a year and an endowment which generates about a third of our income," Wessels said.

Edna Rose Aten of Mary, Queen of Peace Parish in Webster Groves has been a board member since 1982 and chairwoman since 1988. She joined her parish group around 1960.

Aten's favorite topic is the Children's Cancer Care program, which offers the recreational and therapeutic outing to Branson for pediatric cancer patients and their families in a supportive environment.

Two busloads with children referred to the agency from SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital leave on Saturday morning and return on Monday evening the weekend of Mother's Day. A chaperone from each hospital and a nurse are included on the trip as well.

Aten is impressed by how well the children mingle on the trip, which has given parents and children an opportunity to build lasting friendships. And families still contact the society to say what a relief such a respite brings.

Six years later she still receives a Christmas card from one family that includes a photo of their children.