At the heart of health care: Precious Blood Sisters in chaplaincy

My mother died of cancer 16 years ago. During her illness, she lay week after week in the hospital, and day by day, her team of doctors, nurses and specialists bustled in and out of her room at all hours of the day and night. They were doing their best to help her. But they were so busy, sometimes they barely looked up at us from their armloads of charts and papers.

In those challenging times, there was one thing we looked forward to: a visit from Jackie.

Jackie was part of the hospital’s spiritual care team. She brought us the Eucharist, and she prayed with us, and told us about her own life, and sometimes even just had a lighthearted chat. It always seemed like she had all the time in the world for us. Though we had never met before, she gave us a feeling of belonging, as part of a community that was praying for my mom, and for us.

That is just part of what a chaplain does.

The unrelenting coronavirus pandemic has underscored the vital role chaplains play in health care. Insights from just some of the Precious Blood Sisters who minister, or have ministered, as chaplains shed some light on what motivates them to walk alongside those who may be experiencing their darkest days.

Sister Martha Bertke

Now in her retirement, Sister Martha Bertke is a volunteer chaplain at Mercer Health Hospital in Coldwater, Ohio. She and two other ministers of different faith denominations provide spiritual care for the patients of all religious traditions as well as those who have none. Chaplains can also provide support to families of the patients and members of the health team. In this important work, they provide a ministry of presence to those in need, including listening, communication and sensitivity to spiritual and cultural diversity.

“Being a volunteer chaplain is a fulfilling role especially as I bring care and compassion to people,” Sister Martha said. “Regardless of my feelings about the way a patient is dealing with their health situation, it is important to accept them where they are. Assisting people to cope with their experience in a health care setting can make all the difference to a person. Offering to pray with and for the patient can be a source of comfort and peace to someone who is ill. Sharing God’s love and goodness with others is a blessing in my life.”

Sister Joan DeChristopher

Sister Joan DeChristopher ministered in pastoral care and chaplaincy for nearly two decades at a number of hospitals in Kentucky and Cincinnati. “I prayed with patients before surgery or sometimes talked to them after the doctor saw them. I talked to them about their fears or just spent time with them,” she explained. She also held religious services in the hospital chapel and, when working with children and teens, she sometimes organized fun activities such as baking a birthday cake together.

“I prayed with [patients], and I prayed to Mother Brunner for the Blood of Christ to cleanse them,” she said. “I once talked to a man from Little Italy in Cincinnati. He had said he didn’t want to see the priest. Well, we realized we happened to know some of the same people, and we just talked. After a while, he said, ‘I think I’ll see that priest now.’ Sometimes we’re instruments and we don’t know exactly how we help people. You just don’t know how your visit will affect them,” she said. “It was wonderful, awesome work, and I loved doing it.”

Sister Virgine Elking

Following more than three decades in ministry as a teacher and educational administrator, Sister Virgine Elking moved to the other side of the classroom and went to Kettering Medical Center to study clinical pastoral education. From 1990 to 2000, she served as director of Catholic ministry at Miami Valley Hospital, where she held prayer services, helped prepare memorial services for those who had died, and reached out to patients and families at various stages of care, from pre-surgery to intensive care.

“I felt privileged I could be with people in those serious conditions. After visiting with a patient, if family or friends were present, I always asked, ‘Is there anybody who wants a hug?’ They would all line up!” she said. “I was with more than 350 people when they died. It’s an honor to be there with someone when they die. And when that time comes for me, I hope I will hear the Lord say, ‘You have done a good job, faithful servant. It’s time for you to come home.’”

Sister Rosemary Goubeaux

Sister Rosemary Goubeaux served as a chaplain at Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton for 15 years and has also volunteered as a chaplain at a local cancer center. “It’s so enriching,” Sister Rosemary has said of chaplaincy. “I always try to see each person as the face of Jesus and I trust they can hopefully recognize that in me, too. … A lot of it is listening. I hear so many stories, many beautiful stories and some heartbreaking experiences, so faith enriching. I feel blessed to be part of this holy journey,” she said. “I want people to experience that I care about what they are going through.”

When the pandemic curtailed her in-person ministry, Sister Rosemary began sending handwritten notes to Sisters and friends. “I thank God for the hope, joy and love I am able to share. I am most grateful for the blessings I have received through these interactions,” she said.

Sister Berenice Janszen

Sister Berenice Janszen served as a high school teacher and drama coach before moving on to clinical pastoral education. After serving for a year as a pastoral associate in St. Joseph, Missouri, she completed the CPE program at Methodist Medical Center in St. Joseph and then embarked on more than two decades of ministry as a chaplain and pastoral coordinator and minister.

“I went bed-to-bed to visit people, and I was with many people when they were dying — especially cancer patients. I met with family members, spent time with family when a patient died, and also gave a course for nurses in the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator,” she said. “I learned to really appreciate the struggles people go through when they’re ill, and I learned about different kinds of illnesses. I met so many wonderful people. I felt I meant a lot to the families, and I loved them all.”

Sister Dolores Keller

In addition to her day-to-day duties as a chaplain at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton and Mercy Hospital in Fairfield, Ohio, Sister Dolores Keller said some of her most memorable experiences came from exceptional moments of connection and presence: Surgeons who requested a blessing for themselves and their hands; undertakers who asked her to offer prayers at a burial when family was not present.

“Being a hospital chaplain was a very spiritual human experience for me,” she said. “Sharing with patients preparing for surgery or death usually became a very private and supportive conversation. Holding hands while encouraging or supporting suffering patients became a frequent gifting. Bringing Eucharist to Catholic patients usually became sacred moments of service and sharing.”

Sister Terry Maher

Sister Terry Maher, a board-certified chaplain with the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, currently serves as manager of the spiritual health department at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley, California. Earlier this year, the national program CBS This Morning accompanied her as she ministered to patients and families during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The ministry of chaplaincy is assessing the patient’s spiritual health, perhaps walking through life’s hurts and joys; family relationships, discussing end-of-life care, fears, joys, what gives a patient peace, etc.,” she has said. “We offer prayer and blessings, stand with a grieving family member, companion a caregiver who is stressed, provide a quiet presence when needed. Our ministry is one title with many ways of being … not unlike lots of other ministries.”

“Whatever their faith is or isn’t, we meet people at their most vulnerable time,” Sister Terry also said. “In my mind it’s how to be present, open and accepting of them because I can be the face of the church. … I can be that welcoming, open face of God that they may not have seen.”

Sister Mary Ann Mozser

“The gift of time … the gift of listening … the gift of empathy … the gift of shared insights.

“These are some of the gifts that a chaplain brings to the ministry of health care. Patients, and their families and people suffering from various illnesses, are seeking the care and understanding of someone who can relate to their situation. They are hungry for someone to listen to their story and then respond with genuine compassion. The chaplain is blessed to be in the position of that someone who can give the time needed to help those who are ill to find comfort and peace. The medical personnel are focused on the illnesses afflicting the patients, but the chaplain can be focused on the patient in a more holistic way. Healing is more than treatments and medicines. Healing comes from a peaceful spirit and from the warmth and compassion of the listening heart of another person … the chaplain.”

Sister Judy Niday

“Teaching and chaplaincy share a common aspect of life — struggling with growing pains physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I consider my ministry as a teacher and chaplain a privilege to have walked with preschoolers and elders. They both experience insecurities and anxieties at a lesser or greater degree as they move through new stages of life.

“The most rewarding times as chaplain were being at the bedside of the dying and their families. They taught me how to be present along their journey in silence, song, prayer and even getting permission from the doctor for a dying patient to have his last sip of beer!

“The residents, patients and students taught me humility, for I learned more about myself as a minister — how to listen to the quiet voice, the unspoken message and discern when to be present or not.

“One nurse asked me how I know how much time to spend with someone. My response was one of discerning what and who is in need, be it a family member, the patient, resident or staff member. It was teamwork with all concerned and the Holy Spirit.”

Sister Nancy Recker

Sister Nancy Recker worked for many years as a dietician and has also provided spiritual care to Precious Blood Sisters at Maria Joseph Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Dayton. “When you work in dietary, you’re feeding the physical body. When you work in chaplaincy, you work in the spiritual side,” Sister Nancy has said. “It’s nourishment. You can’t feed one without the other. You’re still giving life. … Listening is important because you can’t help others if you don’t listen and learn what their concerns are. To me that’s a real work of mercy. It’s a human element and we all need somebody who we trust. We all need somebody to talk to.”

Sister Anna Maria Sanders

“Being a chaplain at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, I found that my 55 years of life experiences played a role in helping me to relate to and connect with the patients, family members and staff at the hospital. My immediate prior five years of working as a licensed nursing assistant at a nursing home while living with my mother who had Alzheimer’s was the springboard for choosing to train to be a chaplain.

“The words of Psalm 23, ‘Though I walk in the shadow of death I fear no evil; for you are at my side. . .’ have a greater impact on me now as I saw and experienced the strong faith of patients and family members as they experienced suffering and death. Sitting with family members as they waited in surgery waiting rooms to hear the news, or standing with family members as life support is withdrawn from their loved one, or listening to a patient who has learned the cancer is spreading are all times when I saw faith strengthening people. The happier moments were when I entered a patient’s room with the Eucharist and heard the patient say, ‘You make my day. Thank you for bringing me Jesus.’”

Sister Alice Schoettelkotte

Sister Alice Schoettelkotte ministered at Maria Joseph Nursing & Rehabilitation Center for 37 years in various capacities, including as chaplain and as coordinator and director of spiritual care. “Chaplaincy to me is about holistic caring for a person, seeking with them a rounded sense of well-being which includes not only physical, mental and emotional well-being but also a felt sense of interior peace and wholeness. At the invitation of the other person, the chaplain enters into her/his world to explore where the person currently is and where she/he wants to be,” she explained. “Together they begin to clarify what will be needed to move in the desired direction. The other person sets a goal and determines the means to move in that direction. The chaplain remains supportive and agrees to meet again to explore progress as next steps are decided, always encouraging the other person to decide what she/he can reasonably do.”

Sister Laura Will

“When I was a music teacher, I used to take the kids over to the nursing homes, and the patients there were just enthralled with our singing, and always asked us to come back. So after 44 years of teaching, I went into pastoral care classes.

“As a chaplain, being very positive always helps, and just being present to the people who need security and just need your presence. For those patients who had a lot of pain, they seemed to appreciate having soft music. I would sing to them, and they seemed to like that.

“I listened to them … I read to them. I just talked to them about what to expect. If they were afraid, I think I could calm their fears — because dying is just another part of living. It’s good to talk to them about heaven and all the people they’re going to meet there. I helped them to know that Jesus was coming and that he would make everything all right, and helped them to remember the compassion and mercy of God, and that there’s no need to be scared.”

Story by Mary Knapke

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