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home : features : people of faith

7/19/2012 9:00:00 AM
Chaplains bring faith to secular hospital
FATHER JONES, SISTER Marianne and Deacon Lukovits. Samaritan hospitality volunteer Karen Bloomer also told The Evangelist that God is crucial to the healing process:
FATHER JONES, SISTER Marianne and Deacon Lukovits. Samaritan hospitality volunteer Karen Bloomer also told The Evangelist that God is crucial to the healing process: "The Lord has a peace that He can give you that no one else can. A lot of people feel that they're not good enough for God. They need to understand that He loves them and wants them back."

Patients at Samaritan Hospital in Troy can request a chaplain 24 hours a day, attend Mass and avail themselves of the Eucharist, anointing of the sick and reconciliation - and the hospital isn't even Catholic.

That level of spiritual care marks a shift at the 160-bed health facility from two decades ago, when Deacon Frank Lukovits became a part-time chaplain at Samaritan.

Back then, he said, chaplains' work was simply "tolerated." But "through the years, we've become what I feel is an integral part of the team."

Now, Deacon Lukovits serves as an on-call chaplain and occasionally relieves Sister Marianne Kennah, CSJ, full-time co-director of the spiritual care department. A priest, a brother and a dozen chaplains of other faiths also work at the hospital.

Last, best work
Sister Marianne, 75, says Samaritan is her "last stop" in ministry.

"I think God left the best for last for me," said Sister Marianne, who worked in education and human services. "It's like He has given me a special gift at this time in my life."

Deacon Lukovits and Rev. David Jones, MM, are also in their late 70s, but still answer calls for a chaplain in the wee hours. Father Jones, who is celebrating his 50th anniversary of priesthood this year, even said he enjoys "getting up when I don't want to get up and coming down here when people need help.

"There's so much that still has to be done," he explained. Having spent decades as a missionary in Africa, "I've been around the world too long to find anything challenging."

Father Jones was a full-time chaplain at Samaritan in the 1990s. He recently returned after traveling the globe as an auditor for his Maryknoll religious order. He also fills in at parishes around the Albany Diocese.

The priest said Samaritan respects the role of spirituality during a patient's stay. Hospitality volunteers greet patients and alert chaplains to their needs; chaplains have access to medical records and can make rounds alongside doctors, even in the emergency room.

Diverse group
The patient population at Samaritan is more diverse than it was two decades ago, but the majority of patients are still Christian, Deacon Lukovits said. About 15 Catholics and several volunteers from other denominations distribute communion regularly; other services are available on weekends, and a rabbi comes in if needed.

Although society has become more secular, many patients are still "looking for God," Sister Marianne said. "It's an awesome ministry. There are moments you can't really explain fully."

In addition to her other duties, Sister Marianne runs a weekly program for the mental health and chemical dependency unit. Patients there often don't want to hear about God, so she talks about change and quotes from 12-step addiction recovery programs.

Work can take a toll on the chaplains, but they all take retreats, talk to spiritual directors and have hobbies.

"You need a fun life, too," Sister Marianne said. "You need to be nourished yourself to minister to other people. You get the grace from God. All of us here have that strong faith that there's something beyond here. That's why I can do it: because I believe this [life] isn't the end."

Time of death
Sometimes, she's the last voice a dying individual hears. "God takes over," she said of the moment a patient passes away. "You're not looking at dead people; you're looking at new people."

For Deacon Lukovits - who was a Navy Hospital corpsman during the Korean War, a pharmaceutical chemist for 35 years and an ambulance chief for seven years - being with a dying person is a "sacred moment. It has lessened my fear of dying."

The deacon serves people of many faiths. If a patient is Jewish, for example, he flaunts his knowledge of Yiddish expressions and tells a few Catholic-Jewish jokes.

"Immediately, they light up," he said. "People are very open to ecumenism."

The Catholic chaplains know Christian and Hebrew prayers, verses from the Quran and how to address atheists. Sometimes, a chaplain's role is simply "a ministry of presence," Deacon Lukovits added.

Tactful triage
Some patients and families will embrace prayer during a crisis, but reject it at other times. The chaplains know when to talk, when to be silent, when to hold someone's hand, when to ask open-ended questions, when to baptize or confirm an individual and when to follow up with families.

"The nurses want to give [patients] a needle; the nutritionist wants to feed them; but we don't ask anything of them," Sister Marianne said.

Many patients send chaplains heartfelt thank-you cards and gifts, but "it's never about us," she said. "It's always God first."

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