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Allowing for God’s presence: Sisters of Providence hospital chaplains

Presence – in relationship
Presence – in prayer
Presence – in listening

Each of our four sisters ministering as hospital chaplains sums up her ministry in one word — presence. Each of these four sisters names one essential skill for a hospital chaplain — listening.

Sister Laura Parker

Sister Laura Parker, SP, works at Holy Cross Hospital. She describes it as a “safety net hospital in a troubled area of Chicago.” Patients know domestic abuse, drug abuse, gang violence and more. Sister Laura sees patients with complicated health issues and with no safety net to hold them. Her hope is to provide “an oasis in the midst of the chaos experienced by patients … a trusting partner in faith and, if we’re lucky, in laughter.”

She encounters persons of deep faith daily, like the young mother who lost a son to gang violence and another son to drug overdose. Her father was fighting cancer. Added to all this was the woman’s own struggle to keep her job because she had taken so much time off to care for her family. Yet this young woman demonstrated “strong, unshakable faith.”

Led by the Spirit

How does Sister Laura continue to be present to persons of deep faith in God and those with no personal sense of God? “Being open to the Spirit in this ministry is a must, along with a deep prayer life, so that we may stay aligned and be able to exhibit an open presence to the other.”

Sister Betty Hopf, SP, at right, says the patients she ministers with as chaplain at Hux Cancer Center in Terre Haute teach her about love and patience. (Image courtesy of wtwo TV)

Hux Cancer Center in Terre Haute, Indiana, is Sister Betty Hopf’s ministry site. On being a chaplain, Sister Betty said, “I don’t preach; I just DO … trying to do what Jesus would do, that is BE a pastoral presence.” The presence of Providence guides Sister Betty. “When I have a long list of patients to see, I find myself led to be in the right place at the right time — with those most in need at that moment.”

Sister Betty finds herself taught by the persons she companions. These patients teach by their love and acceptance of what is; they also teach by their concern for Sister Betty — all in the midst of their own suffering and trials.

Working together

Sister Mary Jo Piccione is present to these new parents in her ministry as hospital chaplain in Apple Valley, California.

As chaplain at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Apple Valley, California, Sister Mary Jo Piccione, SP, has learned the art of “getting out of the way.” She observes that sometimes the chaplain needs to step aside and let someone else be the minister. She observed a young nurse struggling with the same issues as a patient. Mary Jo stepped aside so the nurse could be present with that patient. She’s learned that housekeeping staff often turn out to be the best source of referrals because they are in and out of patient rooms all the time. “Sister, the person in room 203 is crying. You may want to stop in and see her.”

As do Sisters Laura and Betty, Sister Mary Jo sums up her ministry as one of “presence and prayer.”

Chaplain Sister My Huong Pham, SP, at left, with patient Luanne Lechner of
Grace Hospice in Oak Brook , Illinois.

A witness to God’s saving power

Sister My Huong Pham, SP, ministers at Grace Hospice in Oak Brook, Illinois. She defines her presence there as “witnessing to God’s saving power for those whose hearts are broken.” COVID-19 presents overwhelming challenges to patients and families in all hospital settings. Sister My Huong relates this tender story of a young woman who had lost a husband, a parent and an uncle to the virus.

Sister My Huong realized the woman was entertaining thoughts of suicide. “I felt her desperation as I listened. I listened and let her anger burst out and explode. I prayed with her and assisted her to unknot her pain and let go of her suicidal thoughts. Because I felt as vulnerable as the bereaved, I could only rely on God’s intervention for her … God does the work through me. It’s the best part of my ministry.”

Sister Mary Jo Piccione, left, poses several years ago with a co-worker at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Apple Valley, California where Sister Mary Jo ministers as a hospital chaplain.

Providence in presence. Providence in listening. Providence in prayer. Providence in four Sisters of Providence who know the power of presence, listening and prayer. Four Sisters of Providence who believe that by stepping aside, they step up to the challenges of hospital chaplaincy.

(Originally published in the Winter 2020 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Denise Wilkinson

Sister Denise was the general superior of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods from 2006-2016. She previously served as a high school teacher, college administrator, postulant/novice director and director of advancement and communications for the Congregation. Currently, Sister Denise serves the Congregation in various volunteer positions.

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