Fr. Francis Tebbe sprinkles holy water on Maggie, a nine-year-old amputee service dog, as her owner Becky Buchanan of Munster keeps hold of a stroller during the blessing and introduction of the pet therapy program at Franciscan Health in Munster on Feb. 15, 2019. Photo by Anthony D. Alonzo/NW Indiana Catholic
“God bless these therapy dogs and their handlers as they begin their ministry today for our patients and staff.”
With that blessing and a sprinkle of holy water, Francis Tebbe introduced the pet therapy program at Franciscan Health in Munster, Ind., in February of 2019. It was a special moment for the friar and animal lover who knows well the joy that furry friends bring to patients, along with helping to ease their fears or anxiety about being hospitalized. Francis, director of Mission Integration at Franciscan Health Dyer, Hammond and Munster, was equally gratified when the program resumed at Munster in late March, after being halted due to visitor restrictions during COVID-19.
“Everyone enjoyed the visit, the first time since March 2020, patients, staff, dogs and their handlers,” Francis said.
“The patients’ reaction was wonderful, and the staff was really excited to see us. We had nothing but smiles,” said Julie Canady, pet therapy program coordinator and administrative assistant in the Franciscan Alliance marketing department, who also participates with her therapy dog Meiko.
Francis, who has been in his current role at Franciscan Health since 2016, worked diligently for more than two years to bring the program to the Munster campus. “As a dog lover myself, it was just a natural thing,” he said.
All participating dogs are certified by Therapy Dogs International or the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. “The dogs must be calm, with no jumping or barking or reacting to loud noises,” Francis explained. “They’re very alert to the patients’ needs, and have such a calm, positive effect on them. The patients respond to them with such happiness. They’ll tell us, ‘that made my day. I can’t tell you how much it means to me.’”
The dogs’ weekly visits mean just as much to the staff, he added, noting the smiles on people’s faces when they see the wagging tails in the hospital corridors. “The nurses will ask, ‘where are the dogs? Are they coming today?’”
Francis believes the presence of the canines is especially meaningful for patients and staff after the stress and challenges associated with the pandemic. “It was difficult for the patients, painful for the families and so hard on the staff,” he said. “I think we’re finally coming out of it. We’ve had no new cases in three weeks.” (as of April 28)
Any stress Francis himself may be experiencing is alleviated when he arrives home to the cheerful greetings from his own dogs, Kasey and Kiwi, two-year-old Pekingese siblings. “They’re happy to see me, and I’m happy to see them. They really do lower my stress level, and it helps me to focus on their needs.”
He recalled a recent article he read in which a woman mentioned that as part of her prayer life, she will pick a flower, concentrate on it, communicate with the flower, and it with her. “She said everything in creation can do this,” Francis noted. “St. Francis already had the line on that. We have a connection with all of creation. That really pinpoints my deep affection for animals.”
Of course, there is also much more to Francis’ role with Franciscan Health. He considered hospital ministry as a young friar, but went on to spend many years in varied ministries, including a stint as missionary in the Philippines, parish work and experiences in religious education, institutional advancement and higher education. Francis feels things have now come full circle.
After a ministry search in 2011, as Francis discerned what God was calling him to next, he served as a chaplain at Palos Health, in Palos Heights, Illinois. At Mass one morning, he noticed a gentleman wearing a San Damiano cross on his lapel. Asking the man about the cross, Francis learned he worked at Franciscan Health (formerly Sisters of St. Francis Health Services). “The appeal of ministering at a Franciscan place was obvious,” said Francis, who spent two years as director of Mission and Spiritual Care Services before moving into his current position.
Since then, Munster has grown from a 20 to 65-bed facility, along with adding a cancer center, emergency services, a chapel and cafeteria. Much of Francis’ ministry involves the orientation of new employees and participating in daily, multi-disciplinary rounds with other staff members. “It’s for the patients to get to know me, but I’m also here for the rest of our team. I’m here for the staff, as well, and try to make that point by my presence.”
Francis also serves on Franciscan Health’s Corporate Mission Integration Committee, comprised of his colleagues from the three campuses. The group meets every other month to discuss and plan mission initiatives for the coming year, including regular non-perishable food, personal hygiene, school supply and baby item collections for local social service organizations, parishes and schools. The committee recently took the lead on collecting 2,700 pairs of shoes, headed for Ukraine via Changing Footprints, an Indiana-based non-profit that distributes footwear to those in need worldwide.
“In our meetings, we also focus on how we can instill a sense of Franciscan mission and our core values (respect for life, fidelity to our mission, compassionate concern, joyful service and Christian stewardship) in all we do,” Francis explained. “We work together to keep Christ’s mission and the selfless acts of Francis alive and as our guiding values.”