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Annie Lees' voice still breaks when she tells the story of how, years ago, she reached a turning point in her life.

It happened at a St. Paul Saints game. Lees, an actress at the time, had been hired to entertain the audience between innings. After doing her bit, she liked to chat with audience members.

"So I started talking to this older man," she said. "And I had no experience with anyone with any sort of memory stuff, but I could tell pretty quickly that he was not tracking.

"So he talked and talked and talked and he shared so much about his life. We both stood there and talked for, I don't know, an hour or whatever. And [his] whole family was there. So anyway, then I went on my way, and after the game his daughter comes up to me. And she was emotional. And she said, 'My dad ...'"

Lees stopped. She paused for a long moment.

"I still can't even ..." she said.

She continued in a quavering voice. "She said, 'My dad has Alzheimer's, and for you to stand there and talk to him was so amazing. Don't ever stop doing what you're doing.'"

Time passed. Then one day, Lees was working at another Saints game and the daughter found her again. "She said, 'I just want you to know that I'm so happy to see that you're still doing this. My father has since passed on, but we will never forget what you gave to him that day."

That's the experience that set Lees on her journey to become a Catholic chaplain.

Today, at 56, Lees is a chaplain at Catholic Eldercare in Minneapolis, a senior residence where she gets to talk to people — all over 60, some with dementia or other limitations — about their lives. She loves hearing what they have to say.

"It's a very particular demographic and a very particular time in people's lives," she said. "They're coming to the end of things, and they're preparing to depart, to finish it up. I think what's so beautiful about it is honoring them and helping walk them home."

She quoted a line she once heard on a podcast, "Our job is to walk each other home. And if we can do that for one another in some small way, every day, whatever it is, I think that's what this life is all about, right?"

Annie Lees, a chaplain at Catholic Eldercare, offers a woman communion as she leads a rosary and Bible study for residents at Catholic Eldercare in Minneapolis, Minn., on Tuesday June, 4, 2024. ] RENEE JONES SCHNEIDER •
Annie Lees, a chaplain at Catholic Eldercare, offers a woman communion as she leads a rosary and Bible study for residents at Catholic Eldercare in Minneapolis, Minn., on Tuesday June, 4, 2024. ] RENEE JONES SCHNEIDER •

Renée Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

Twists and turns

Chaplain in a senior residence is not exactly the role an observer might have predicted for Lees. But her life has taken some unexpected turns. When she was growing up in Santa Rosa, Calif., she was always captivated by the Oscars ceremony and wanted to be an actress. She appeared in school plays and attended college at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles.

Sometime around 1990, Lees was cast in a play written and produced by friends from the academy. After staging it in Los Angeles, they took the show to the Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis.

Lees hated living in Los Angeles — "the traffic, the smog, just the amount of people" — and was having a hard time breaking into the business. She fell in love with Minnesota, the culture, the changing seasons, even the winters. So in 1992, in a reversal of what an aspiring actress might be advised to do, she moved from Los Angeles to Minneapolis to launch her career.

She had a hard time at first, mainly because she became deeply involved in alcohol and drugs.

"I came to a place where I could no longer continue on the way I was — I hit rock bottom," she said. "I knew that the light within me was diminishing and I didn't want to continue on in that way. I knew that God had something else in mind for me."

But what that might be wasn't immediately clear.

After getting sober in 1996, she became more diligent about showing up for auditions, which led to jobs here. She had small roles in a couple of small movies, was in a commercial, had dinner-theater roles, did improv and comedy, played "Miss Adventure" at the Saints games, and took a gig she still has at the Mystery Cafe.

Not long after the experience with the man at the Saints game, her pastor asked Lees if she'd ever thought about ministry. In fact, she had. He encouraged her to go for it.

So she got a bachelor's degree in Christian Ministry at Bethel University, then took a job with the school as an office administrator. She wasn't able to spend much time talking to people at work, because it kept her from her duties.

One day she told a retired Marine Corps chaplain about her love of hearing people's stories.

"That's chaplaincy," he said.

So she entered Bethel Seminary to earn a Master of Divinity degree, which she is still working on.

She replied to an ad for a chaplain at Catholic Eldercare, which provides a range of accommodations for older people, including assisted living, memory care and skilled care services (similar to a nursing home). She was hired.

"I started this job and it was ... I don't want this to sound weird, but it was so easy," she said. "I'd never done this work before, and it was like I'd been doing it my whole life."

Lees prays the rosary during a Bible study for residents at Catholic Eldercare.
Lees prays the rosary during a Bible study for residents at Catholic Eldercare.

Renée Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

Feeling connected

Greg Baumberger, CEO of Catholic Eldercare, said Lees seems "really called" to do that work.

"She's just such a caring, compassionate individual," Baumberger said. "You know, she's just genuine, very genuine."

She draws on skills she learned as an actress — she can project her voice for a crowd, she can improvise, she can really listen to what people are saying before responding (an early acting coach told her to "stop acting and just say the words"). She sits quietly with those who are nonverbal. She prays the rosary with people who no longer speak much but can recite the half-hour prayer right along with her.

Talking to residents helps her feel connected — "selfishly," she calls it, but she's actually just exploring commonalities in the human experience.

"What is part of your story that is similar to my story?" she said. "And in this moment, I think that if we can offer that to each other, it provides a way for us to feel there's some meaning to why we're here."

She recalled a recent day when she was massaging residents' hands. She started on the hands of a woman who didn't usually speak much. But the woman took Lees' hand and said, "'Well, what about your hands?' The woman proceeded to massage both of Lees' hands.

"It was so beautiful. And the way that she held my hands. Her hands were so thin. I mean, she's in her mid 90s, you know, and just so thin."

The massage went on, Lees said. "And she just was so gentle. And she remembered all the moves."