Parish nurse Gwenn Baer’s faith and service to others helped her find peace, and a miracle
By Jean Parietti
Gwenn Baer prayed many times with her husband, Bill, at this icon of St. Peregrine, patron of cancer patients. The icon is located at Blessed Sacrament Church in Seattle. Photo: Stephen Brashear
The scourging at the pillar. That’s all Gwenn Baer could think of when she learned about the horrible treatment her husband Bill was about to undergo in his fight against metastatic kidney cancer.
Over two five-day periods in intensive care, Bill would be given up to 28 infusions that would make him severely ill as his body fought the cancer cells. "Oh my God. I never heard of so torturous a thing,” recalled Gwenn, a registered nurse.
If he had enough courage to go through that, she told her husband, “the only thing I can offer you is I will stay by your side.” But after a four-month span that included Bill’s two cancer surgeries, waiting, lots of tests, and more waiting, Gwenn wasn’t sure she could hold it together during the demanding regimen.
“I’m really scared that I’m going to break watching him suffer,” Gwenn told one of her parish priests after Mass, as she broke into tears. “He just kind of held my hand and let me sob.”
Gwenn and Bill had deep hope and trust in Jesus, great doctors and tremendous support from their family and friends, their children’s school and their parish community. But Gwenn was seeking someone to walk the difficult journey with her. “I was trying to find an advocate for myself,” she said.
Later, Gwenn felt the Virgin Mary speak in her heart: “I’m here, I’m your mother, and I watched my own son suffer. I will help you.”
Now, six years later, Gwenn is answering the call to be an advocate, a companion for others in her faith community facing a major health crisis.
Gwenn is a big believer in paying attention to divine providence. “I’ve always felt like my whole life’s been run by divine providence and things happen for a reason,” she said.
Raised in a Christian home, Gwenn was a sixth-grader when her parents pulled her out of public school and enrolled her at St. Benedict School in Seattle. Gwenn became enamored with the Dominican sisters in their white habits, and was drawn to the ritual and consistency of the Catholic faith. “I was in the uniform, but I wasn’t able to fully participate,” she said. “I was always sort of curious what that would be like.”
But after graduating from Holy Names Academy in Seattle, Gwenn wasn’t sure where she stood on the Catholic faith: “Had I been indoctrinated or was it something I wanted?” Going off to college, she decided not to go to church at all. “I was pretty miserable, and I just knew what the answer was.”
About a year and a half after college, Gwenn went through the RCIA program at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Seattle and joined the church. When Gwenn met Bill, he wasn’t a practicing Catholic. But when they decided to marry, she told him she wanted the kind of marriage his faith-filled parents had, and that meant a parish community and showing up in the pews every week. After their second child was born, Gwenn had an awakening.
“Somehow it hit me that I was the matriarch of our family, and the matriarch is usually the one who passes on the faith, and I’d better get my act together,” Gwenn said. “So I put a prayer out there and said, ‘God, I need some help figuring this out.’”
The next week, the bulletin at her parish, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Bothell, advertised a new Bible study called “Manna.” Gwenn recognized God’s handwriting. “I asked to be fed and I guess this is pretty clear,” she thought.
Continuing her ministry of assembling gift bags for needy newborns was a saving grace for Gwenn Baer during her husband’s cancer crisis. Photo: Stephen Brashear
Providence pointed the way again at her son’s preschool open house. There, she befriended another mom, Ann Schwab, who was volunteering at Catholic Community Services. Ann was putting together layettes — starter kits of baby items — for low-income moms, and Gwenn started helping her. “I never had volunteered anywhere,” Gwenn said. “She helped me by saying this is how you do it.” When Ann was getting ready to go back to work, she asked Gwenn to take over coordination of the program.
Gwenn has been making the layettes for more than 10 years, gathering donations from her parish, St. Mary Magdalen in Everett, and surrounding parishes. “It’s just pure giving and it’s anonymous. I never meet the moms,” Gwenn said.
“She’s just such an advocate,” said Debra Mazick, director of Specialized Case Management Services at the CCS Snohomish Family Center in Everett. “She’s always out there one-on-one talking with people,” drumming up donations, Mazick said. If Gwenn runs short of an item, she sends out a prayer. “I always end up getting what I need. It’s uncanny,” she said.
When friends suggested Gwenn give up the layette ministry during Bill’s cancer crisis, it wasn’t an option. “That is my escape from myself and it fills me back up,” Gwenn told them. “That was the only thing that saved my sanity — doing service for someone else.”
That call to service is what makes Holy Thursday Gwenn’s favorite feast day: “It’s all about the feet washing,” she said.
After walking with Bill through cancer, Gwenn has no doubt about the power of prayer. There were prayers from family and friends; their parish at the time, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton; and St. Mary Magdalen School in Everett, where their children Max and Marissa were students. “When you have so many people praying for you, you feel totally different,” Gwenn said.
“There were days I physically felt like someone was holding me under my arms and helping me walk.” There was the spiritual ritual of stopping at Blessed Sacrament Church in Seattle before Bill had a test or procedure at the nearby University of Washington Medical Center. Bill would be anointed by the pastor, Dominican Father Daniel Syverstad, or one of the other priests, and the couple would pray at the church’s icon of St. Peregrine, patron of cancer patients.
There were Gwenn’s prayers, extra-fervent ones sent up when it looked as though Bill’s cancer-fighting infusions might have to stop at the 20th dose. His condition leveled out and he made it through the optimum 28 doses.
Today, Bill is healthy. Gwenn gives credit to “all the intercessory prayer through the world, and Father Daniel’s hands.”
Living one day at a time and surrendering completely to God’s will wasn’t easy, she said, “but it was the answer that brought us peace and a miracle. We are very grateful. We are very blessed.”
Gwenn, Max, Marissa and Bill Baer feel blessed after Bill’s recovery from metastatic kidney cancer in 2007. Photo: Courtesy Gwenn Baer.
Gwenn’s experience with Bill awakened a deeper call to help others through a health crisis. So she began praying about it. Remembering how often she has walked through the illnesses of other people dear to her — through end-stage kidney cancer, open-heart surgery, Alzheimer’s disease — Gwenn realized she was being called to parish nursing.
Putting herself in such a public role doesn’t come naturally. “Normally, I would just fly under the radar and do my layettes,” Gwenn said. But the confidence she gained volunteering for CCS gave her the assurance needed to start the parish health ministry.
It didn’t happen right away, but Gwenn eventually became certified as a parish nurse and started the ministry in the summer of 2012 at St. Mary Magdalen. “I thought, ‘God will give me a sign if I’m on the right track or not.’”
God, she says, has sent her at least two signs. Almost immediately, she was asked to help a school mom with end-stage cancer who needed someone to accompany her to chemotherapy appointments. “I walked with her from November  to June,” when she passed away, Gwenn said.
Another sign came in the form of the three nurses who volunteered to join Gwenn in the ministry. One of them, Leondra Weiss, is a public health nurse who used to take Gwenn’s layettes to moms in need. The two women never knew each other, only figuring out the connection when the nursing ministry brought them together.
“God is awesome. I know we’re definitely on the right track,” Gwenn remembers thinking. “I always find providential signs along the way. I don’t know what’s going to happen ahead,” she said, “but we’re at least going to get this rolling.”
Learn more about layettes
Read more about the Catholic Community Services layette ministry. To make a donation, contact Debra Mazick at the CCS Snohomish County Family Center, 425-374-6358.
NORTHWEST CATHOLIC – January/February 2014