AMITYVILLE — Each Wednesday, Father Tom Costa puts aside his clerical black suit for white scrubs to help care for senior priests at St. Pius X Residence here.
“It’s a different uniform,” the priest and registered nurse said with a smile, but the work he dresses for arises from the same vocation that he shares with the retired priests living here. Last year, Father Costa, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Glen Cove, earned a nursing degree from Nassau Community College so that he could help care for ailing priests.
“I love it. To me it’s a privilege to be here and do what little I can do for these priests who have given their lives in service over so many years to the people of the Church,” Father Costa said.
In 2008, the diocese moved its residence for senior priests from Uniondale to two floors at Dominican Village, a retirement and assisted living center on the grounds of the Dominican Sisters’ motherhouse here in Amityville.
During his weekly visits, Father Costa might change dressings on a wound and accompany priests for a doctor’s visit. Normally, he lays out their medicines for the week or simply visits the priests and listens to their concerns.
The idea of becoming a nurse first occurred to him a few years ago when two priests he was close to became seriously ill. He helped care for one in the hospital and the other he invited to stay at his rectory and took care of him there.
Some time after that a seminary classmate, a priest of the Brooklyn Diocese, needed people to accompany him for a week at a time when he traveled out of state for treatment, Father Costa said. “I was one of several priests who stayed with him.
“Thinking about it made me wonder if God was saying something to me, that He wanted me to do something to help priests,” Father Costa said. After discussing the idea with his two sisters who are nurses, he consulted with Bishop William Murphy who encouraged him to pursue his idea.
“I needed two-and-half years of preparation,” taking one science course a semester before starting the two-year nursing program at Nassau Community College.
“It was a lot of work, but fortunately the other priests at my rectory were very supportive, covering for me when necessary,” Father Costa said. He enjoyed both the classroom work — “It’s good to know that the brain still works” — and the clinical work, two semesters of which he was able to complete at Glen Cove Hospital near his parish.
“Often I’d get the double take,” when he saw parishioners who were patients or staff there.
“I really liked the critical and medical surgical nursing,” which he saw as most applicable to his reason for pursuing nursing. “And even though it’s removed from what I was training for, I enjoyed the work in ob-gyn. It was awesome to be present for the birth of a baby.
“My classmates were fantastic,” he noted. “I was older than some of the faculty,” but his younger classmates became accustomed to him. “People would come to talk to me about faith issues, ethical questions, or questions that people have about the Church.
“It was also inspiring to see so many young people, men and women,” choosing to devote their lives to caring for the sick.
“You hear a lot of stories about impersonal medical care and institutions, but I saw very little of that,” Father Costa said. “With very few exceptions, the doctors and nurses and other staff are extremely dedicated and show great compassion and gentleness.”
He graduated last May and passed his nursing boards in July. In September, he began coming out weekly to help with the senior priests.
Msgr. Thomas Mulvanerty, diocesan vicar for senior priests, described Father Costa’s work as a great asset and blessing. “He has such a good way with the guys and is so compassionate.”
Msgr. Mulvanerty noted that as vicar for senior priests he is also responsible for senior priests who don’t live at St. Pius but need assistance. “I have been able to consult with him about their medical needs.” Father Costa has also opened his rectory to priests who need to stay for a while to recuperate from illness or surgery.
Last week, Father Costa interacted easily with the older priests, helping one get up from a chair, changing the dressing on an incision for another, and tending to another priest’s sore ear. He also accompanied two priests to visit the doctor who comes to Dominican Village, learning about their conditions and any necessary follow-up.
Continuing his duties as a pastor, Father Costa has developed even greater respect for those who pursue nursing fulltime. “I think of the first time I had to give a patient a bath or clean up after a patient. And I think of Holy Thursday, when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples.”